‘Perhaps universal history is but the history of several metaphors.’ Jorge Luis Borges
If you’re in Pretoria, you go ‘down’ to Johannesburg. Melbournians travel ‘up’ to Sydney. Cariocas in Rio pop ‘down’ to São Paulo. The expression ‘up’ or ‘down’ has nothing to do with any incline in the journey. Then why do we use a vertical dimension when talking about horizontal travel?
The association of ‘south’ with ‘down’ seems deeply embedded. If ‘language is the house of being’, then the blueprint for this arrangement lies in the Oxford English Dictionary. Open the OED and the first definition of ‘south’ is ‘directly opposite to the north’. So, it would be reasonable to assume that when you ‘north’ you find it defined as ‘directly opposite the south’? No, ‘north’ is defined as ‘the direction of the part of the horizon on the left-hand side of a person facing the rising sun’. So why isn’t ‘south’ the ‘right-hand side…’? Why does our reckoning start only with the north?
History is not kind to ‘south’. Most established references for ‘south’ in the OED are self-evident. However, in recent times it has developed a negative idiomatic use. The term ‘global south’ is first cited in an Economist article from 1975. At the very same time, the direction ‘south’ becomes associated with economic decline. A 1975 article in Business Week included the phrase, ‘If the market is headed South… there is a point beyond which information and growth prospects are meaningless.’ Recently, ‘south’ has been used idiomatically for any downturn, including marriage going ‘south’ (R. B. Parker, 2003) and a night scene that is ‘south of anemic’ (N.Y. Times, 2006).
It may seem a minor conceit. This use of ‘south’ is metonymically related to the downward trajectory of financial graphs at times of economic decline. But it is clearly a powerful idiom given its generalisation to all situations of decline.
This use of ‘south’ has particular power in the USA. The phrase ‘going south’ also refers to someone who absconds with money gained illicitly at a poker game. The allusion is to someone who has escaped to Mexico, beyond the reach of the law.
Given this geographic locus, it would be interesting to know if this pejorative use of ‘south’ is limited to English. We can perform a simple test. When you type the phrase ‘market is going south’ into Google, you receive 5,150 hits. Whereas if you enter the same phrase in Spanish (‘mercado va sur’), you draw a blank. This Anglo usage of ‘south’ prompts a question. Is the ‘verticalisation’ of ‘south’ one of those turns of language designed to service a specific power structure? Imagine the Board meeting of a New York-based financial organisation determining whether to relocate to Buenos Aires—‘Why would we want to move down there’?
The subtle operations of power in language have been noted before. In Violence and Metaphysics, Derrida described the ‘heliological’ metaphor of the Enlightenment as ‘providing an alibi for the historical violence of light’. The identification of light with knowledge was complicit with the operations of slavery and exploration that serviced colonial power. Derrida illuminated the dark motives at play in the gloomy minds of blackened characters.
But we shouldn’t be too downbeat about the idea of South. By following its path through history and space, we might have a better understanding of how it has been constructed.
So why is South left scraping the bottom of the barrel? Let’s see what we can discover from the different ideas of South.