Two dreaded terms in the 19th century about travel on rivers!

In the 19th century, two American terms meant something horrible happening to human beings, and both involved being forced to go either up one river or down another. In my soon-to-be-released book, Most Comprehensive Origins of Cliches, Proverbs and Figurative Expressions these appear in sequence. on pp 348 and 349. I have included them both here:

Sell down the river

This means to betray, disappoint or hurt someone who trusted you. It derived from slave trading in the Southern U.S. prior to the Civil War. Selling a slave down the Mississippi River was typically a method of getting rid of one who was seen as rebellious, thus uprooting the person and separating families, and was a great betrayal to all of the family members. The more Southern plantations were noted for harsher treatment of slaves. The earliest known reference to the phrase in print is from The Ohio Repository (later The Canton Repository) in May, 1837:

“One man, in Franklin County has lately realized thirty thousand dollars, in a speculation on slaves, which he bought in Virginia, and sold down the river.”

After this, numerous other citations appeared in books and periodicals about selling slaves down the river. Mark Twain showed a strong understanding of the meaning of such a practice in Pudd’nhead Wilson, first serialized in The Century Magazine in 1894:

“‘If at the end of that time you have not confessed, I will not only sell all four of you, but— I will sell you Down THE RIVER!’ It was equivalent to condemning them to hell! No Missouri negro doubted this.”

It wasn’t long before the saying was being used figuratively, as in this early example from Small Bachelor by P.G. Wodenhouse, published in both the U.K. and U.S. in 1927:

“When Sigsbee Waddington married for the second time, he to all intents   and purposes sold himself down the river.”

Send someone up the river

In the 19th century, a person who was convicted of a very serious. crime in New York City was sent up the Hudson River to Ossining, to the infamous ‘Sing Sing prison.’ This separated the hardened criminals from the run of the mill (see in first volume) petty thieves and pick pockets. Eventually this term began to apply to anyone sent to maximum security prisons. The earliest available reference in print is from The New York Supplement, Volume 46, 1897, in the case of Dunn et el v. Wehle, Supreme Court, Appellate Term, July 29, 1897:

“…he told the plaintiff that ‘if he recovered a judgment he must be very careful because he had sworn in supplemental proceedings he had nothing, and they might examine him again, and he must be very careful, or they might send him up the river.’”

A citation in quotes is found in Popular Science, August, 1932, page 16, in ‘New Prisons are Proof Against Riot and Outbreak,’ indicating that the saying had become a colloquialism:

“Pallister, once a mason, had been ‘sent up the river’ before on a burglary charge and at that time he had actually helped in the construction of the death house in which he was confined.”

In pole vaulting they raise the bar to determine greatest ability. But where did the expression ‘Raise the bar’ really come from?

Here is another example of folk etymology being incorrect in my new book, Most Comprehensive Origins of Cliches, Proverbs and Figurative Expressions, Volume II, to be released later this month:

Raise the bar^

This expression is used to refer to gradually setting a standard of success or quality higher. It is said to be taken from pole vaulting and high jumping where the bar is set higher as the competition gets stiffer and new records are set. The earliest references in print, however, are from a different ‘bar.’ In the Proceedings of the Illinois Bar Association, Forty-fifth Annual Meeting at Dixon, June 9, 10, 11, 1921, page 61. Note that it is talking of raising the ‘standard of ethics’ but that bar is not capitalized, making it ambiguous:

“We think that if all of the counties throughout the state would do that, it would tend to raise the standard of ethics, of conduct of the profession; and the reading of those canons by the public at large would tend to raise the bar in the public esteem.”

The next year in the Proceedings of the Alabama State Bar Association, Held at Southern Club, Birmingham Alabama, April 28, 29, 1922, a similar statement was made, on page 42, and bar is capitalized, indicating that the origin could indeed be from raising the ideals for attorneys, not the bar used in high jumps;

“And already what we say, if we say is right, goes a long way, but when we raise the Bar to that high standard it should occupy, where we make every lawyer feel that he is an officer of the court, that the oath he takes is a solemn obligation, that it is up to him to live up to the obligation.”            

The next unmistakably figurative use of the phrase also comes in a legal context in 1935, in the New York Court of Appeals, Records and Briefs, page 59:

“The validity of an indictment does not ordinarily depend upon the correctness of a date appearing therein, provided the time alleged does not raise the bar of the statute of limitations.”

A similar citation appears in a New York Court of Appeals record in 1942 in regard to raising the bar of a statute. In fact, the first available reference to raising the bar for high jumping does not come until a Life Magazine article on July 13, 1953.

Early Release Date Announced!

This exciting second volume of phrase origins and meanings will be released on October 1, 2016. Be watching Amazon at that time!:




Based on present progress of final analysis and minor changes being made from the proof of my new book, Most Comprehensive Origins of Cliches, Proverbs and Figurative Expressions, Volume II, I now am able to announce the new early release date! That date is August 25, 5 weeks and 2 days ahead of originally planed schedule. This is being expedited due to other books which are coming from other authors which will demand my attention. As soon  as I know the dates, I will announce my interview on local radio and book signing at the local library which will launch sales here.

Here is another of the over 1,000 new entries in this long-awaited sequel:

Expect the best and plan for the worst^

This proverb means that a positive attitude is important in life, but even so, one must always have a ‘back up plan’ in case of an unexpected disaster. It is often attributed to Zig Ziglar, the wonderful motivational speaker who certainly brought this to our attention. The basis of this saying, however, goes all the way back to the late 17th century. Seneca’s Morals Abstracted in Three Parts by Roger L’Estrange published in London in 1679 has this on page 104-105:

“I would hope the Best, but prepare for the Worst.”

Almost 200 years later it was used in The Day of Rest, An Illustrated Journal of Sunday Reading, from the Church of England, August 23, 1873, in a column titled, ‘The Bright Side:’

“But he who looks on the bright side in a religious spirit will prepare for the worst, though he hopes for the best.”

Oregon Teachers Monthly, January, 1906, in ‘Ashland Normal News’ by editor Armilda Daughty said it this way:

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and take what comes.”