A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (94)?…


Upside down

Four years ago today I wrote my first post for this blog because I found it increasingly more difficult to make sense of things in this strange old world of ours. The natural order of things often seems inverted. In fact, I often find myself muttering that something is upside-down – what should be top is now at the bottom.

It seems that this sense of the world being out of kilter has been with man for many centuries. In print it first surfaces in the Pricke of Conscience, published around 1340 by the mystic and hermit, Richard Rolle, “tharfor it es right and resoune/ that thy be turned up-swa-doune”. Another 14th century poem, a translation of the Seven Sages of Rome, contains the couplet, “the cradle and the child thai found up so down on the floor”. These early sightings of our phrase have a couple of interesting features – firstly, the phrase is used as an adverb and, secondly, the sense in which so was is used can only be to mean “as if” – a peculiar usage, sniffs the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

One of the beauties of the English language is its dynamism and within a century “so” in this context merged to form the compound “upse” which in turn created upset and “upsa”. Rather like one of those puzzles where you make one word into another but by only altering one letter at a time, during the 15th and 16th centuries upside-down could be found in a number of guises such as  opsadoun, upsedoun, up set dune, upset downe, upsydowne and vpsyde downe before settling down to the familiar upside down in the 17th century.

Nowadays we use upside down as an adverb as our medieaval forefathers did but also as an adjective. The usage as an adjective, denoted at least in print with a hyphen between the two words, is a relatively new development, dating to the mid 19th century. And for those who like neologisms or, as those of us studied hard to increase our ancient Greek vocabulary, the dreaded hapax legomenon – only one citation – there is the noun upside-downism. It appears in Frederick Metcalfe’s The Oxonian in Iceland of 1861, “..and been hurled by the Demons of Misrule and Upside-Downism into a disjointed maze of confusion”.

Whilst upside down describes a static state the phrase topsy-turvy conveys a sense of motion and dynamism. Things are in a state of flux which may, indeed, result in the natural order being inverted. The phrase appeared in print in the 16th century – Richard Eden in the Decades of the Newe Worlde of 1555 wrote, “they say that..they see the houses turne topsy turuye and men to walke theyr heeles vpwarde”  – but the OED suggests that it was used in popular speech earlier than that.

Topsy probably owes its origin to top and its plural tops. Turvy is much more problematic. It may come from the Old English, tearflian, which meant to roll over or to overturn. The etymological pursuit is not helped by the number of variants that appear in the early citations – tervy, tirvy, turvy and turvie. There are some 31 variations in total. One theory is that it relates to turf with the idea that someone has fallen and their head – the top – is now on the turf. This is an appealing thought but there is no evidence that it is correct. It was used as an adjective from the 1610s.


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