June 13, 2013
My wife was reading a book the other night and the female lead was having a difficult time with her relationship. At one point the character said to her friend, “Nothing’s left. It’s all downhill from here.”
Confused, my wife came to me and asked about the saying.
“I thought ‘it’s all downhill from here’ was a good thing,” she said.
I looked up from the computer, and said, “It is.”
Then she showed me the sentence, and the context.
I read it twice. “The author’s wrong, but it’s still bad news for the heroine.”
Why The Confusion?
Why is there confusion surrounding what seems to be such an easy saying to understand? The mix-up stems from the fact that there are two similar sayings. Let’s take them one at a time.
This is a good thing. Imagine riding a bike up a steep hill, struggling for half an hour or more to reach the top. You hit the summit and look out over the valley below. You smile.
“It’s all downhill from here.”
In this context you know exactly what that phrase means. It’s going to be easy. Fun. You’re going to sit back on your seat and smile as you coast down the hill, letting the breeze keep you cool. But then you see a saying that says…
He’s Going Downhill
You wonder if that’s good or bad. I’ll give you a clue—if you see any form of the verb go: went, gone, going, goes…somebody is probably in trouble. An example would be: “Ever since Bob had the operation he’s gone downhill.”
What? I thought that meant he was getting better?
Unfortunately—for Bob—this slightly different phrase means getting worse. I don’t know the origin of it, but it more than likely stems from our seemingly endless insistence that up is good and down is bad.
- Heaven is up. Hell is down.
- Stock market is up, or stock market is down.
- Thumbs up or thumbs down.
- Life has ups and downs.
We are so trained to thinking of up as good and down as bad that we even change the meaning to suit our notions, as we did with the practice of “thumbs up” and “thumbs down.”
If you find yourself in the hospital and you hear the word “downhill” mentioned while your doctors are conversing, you better hope they said “it’s all downhill from here,” and not “he’s going downhill.”
Ciao, and thanks for stopping by,
I’d love to hear your thoughts on other confusing sayings.