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What Does "Head South" Mean?

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  • Written By: J.E. Holloway
  • Edited By: M. C. Hughes
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2016
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The expression "to head south" or "to go south" is an American idiomatic expression meaning to fail, lose value, or go wrong. The expression originates from a combination of visual conventions involving graphs and maps. The term is frequently use in business and technical discussion.

The first recorded use of the expression "to head south" appeared in 1974, but in a context that makes it clear that the expression was already a well-known one in financial circles to indicate a decline in the stock market. Use of the term seems to have spread from business into technical discourse, and it began to become very common in the early 1990s, perhaps as part of the general spread of computer jargon into everyday speech. "Head south" was used to describe any failure or collapse, whether in a computer system, a business model, or even a social situation. "Things were going fine until his ex-girlfriend turned up," a speaker might say, "and that's when everything started to head south."

The origin of the phrase "head south" seems to lie in the traditions of visual representation. In a chart or graph, a decrease or decline is often represented by a downward trend. For instance, if sales of a product decrease, the line showing sales will begin to move downward. This practice ties in with traditional symbolic systems which associate downward movement with negative experiences: consider, for instance, the symbolic directions in the expression the "rise and fall" of someone or something.

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In cartography, south is traditionally represented as down relative to the orientation of the reader. As a result, "south" became a slang term for "down." Since "down" was associated with negative experiences, the same applied to "south." The result was that "to head south" or "to go south" became a term for declines in market figures, and from there developed into a term for any kind of catastrophe.

A similar expression, "to go west" or "to head west," existed in British slang in the 20th century, particularly in the years between the First and Second World Wars. It does not seem to be related to the expression "to head south," but may refer to the ancient belief that the spirits of the dead migrated to the west, in the direction of the setting sun. It may also be connected with the idea of a wounded or dead soldier in the First World War being shipped from France westward back to Britain.

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anon966999
Post 13

SauteePan, such an expression, I think, must be relished. Everyone has a mind, and you and I are but two in the world, if it has to do with translation or interpretation.

anon343491
Post 12

I just heard the expression going south on the radio by the local sports caster. He said the baseball team had gone south because they have lost nine games in a row.

runner101
Post 11

Where I live in North Carolina, I must say that the term 'go south' does seem to mean direction and actual travel because of the migration of people trying to get away from the extreme cold *or* high prices of the northern resort areas during certain parts of the year.

In North Carolina, we have a particular catchy name for a certain group called "halfbackers."

These are people who were from the far north states that "went south" for retirement in Florida or moved to Florida for the warmer weather or other various reasons and found it too hot, too touristy, etc. and ended up coming halfway back to North Carolina.

I cannot say I blame them. We have all four seasons, but our winters are extremely mild compared to the blizzards of New England states and our summers do not compare to the heat and humidity of Florida.

OeKc05
Post 10

The phrase “heading south” always fills me with dread. The last time I heard it, I ended up losing my job shortly thereafter.

The walls in the offices in the building where I work are very thin. It is possible to hear what people are saying behind closed doors by simply standing near the room.

My boss had gone into my supervisor’s office and shut the door. Everyone in the room gets paranoid when this happens, because it is usually followed by either a cut in hours or employees.

I happened to need the copy machine at this moment, which was right outside his door. As I stood there, I could hear my boss saying the words “heading south.” Later that day, they let me and two other people go because they could not afford to pay us anymore.

StarJo
Post 9

It may be a coincidence, but literally, it seems the further south you go in the United States, the poorer the living conditions are. The states with the least educated, least healthy, and most obese people are in the South.

I live in a Southern state, and I see it all around me. I live in north Mississippi, where most people belong to the lower class. The people in the middle of the state are even poorer. Some of them live in houses that are falling down, and they don’t even have electricity.

I know that the term originated from downward dips in graphs. However, it’s pretty strange that conditions in the actual South are worse than in the other areas of the country.

andee
Post 8

Sometimes when you are in the middle of a relationship that is going south, it is much harder you to see than it is for someone who is outside the relationship.

When my ex-boyfriend and I were doing a lot of arguing, I just thought it was a phase and we would work through it. It took me awhile to realize that this wasn't going to get any better.

My sister was able to see the direction the relationship was taking much sooner than I was.

She kept telling me the relationship was heading south, and I needed to get out before it got any worse.

Either I didn't want to see it, or didn't want to listen to her, because I had to find out the hard way that it wasn't going to work on a long term basis.

seag47
Post 7

My friends and I used to say we were about to head south when we were making plans for our vacation. We always went to the Gulf coast, and we had to drive south to get there.

I don’t think I have ever used the term in the context of things going wrong. I associate heading south with happiness, because I always have such a good time on my Southern vacations.

I know that most people would probably refer to “driving south” instead of “heading south,” but that’s just what I have heard all my life. My family used to take me to the beach when I was little, and I always heard Daddy telling the neighbor, “We’re about to head south.”

LisaLou
Post 6

Since I follow the stock market on a regular basis, I am well aware of what it means when something is "heading south".

When it comes to a particular company that you are invested in, this is not something you want to hear. If you see the stock price continue to drop and there isn't any positive news, you know that it is time to cut your losses, or hold on and hope things get better soon.

I watch the trends of stock companies by using charts and graphs, and this helps give a very visual illustration of the process. When you see a long term downward trend, that means the company is heading south and probably won't rebound for awhile.

manykitties2
Post 5

Whenever my roommate is in a bad mood things always tend to head south. Dishes get left undone, the bills don't get paid on time, and everyone has to listen to her rant about whatever problem she is having at that time.

I think that the expression is really great to show when something is changing for the worse. I don't like to think negatively, but there are just times when things do head south, and it is good to have an expression that fits the situation so well.

When do you guys commonly use "head south"? Is it usually related to work, home, school or relationships for you?

wander
Post 4

I seem to hear the expression "to go south" more than "head south" actually. I am always saying things are going south at work when we get in new managers that like to make a lot of changes to improve our situation. Usually they just end up mucking up the things the last manager put into place.

My one friend loves to use the expression, things are going south, whenever she gets stuck in contract that doesn't pan out to be what she expected. Usually things look great on paper, but after awhile the spirit of the contract just isn't upheld and it can be tough to finish her work.

fify
Post 3

I've always heard "head south" used to mean decreasing or getting lower. Anything that is decreasing in number or becoming less can be said to be heading south. It has a negative connotation so it means that you want something to go up or increase, so when it goes down, it is "heading south."

It's a really interesting and unique phrase because we never say "head north" when we want to say that something is going up and increasing. It only works with "head south" for some reason. I guess it's another one of those unofficial rules in English.

serenesurface
Post 2

We use this phrase at work if a deal we're working on doesn't go too favorably and it looks like we're going to lose it to another firm.

I don't really use this phrase too much in everyday life though. I think it's become more common to use it in a business or work setting. I know some other phrases which are similar in meaning to "heading south" but they're English slang, so really not appropriate to use at work or around other professionals.

I generally use them when I'm hanging out with close friends. Saying "heading south" sounds much better when the subject is more serious.

SauteePan
Post 1

I always use that expression when I am talking about financial markets especially the real estate market. The real estate market definitely took a dive and did head south, but I know that there are some pockets in the country in which the market is recovering.

Here in Miami, we had one of the largest declines in the real estate market but now things are turning around as the inventory of moderately priced homes is shrinking. I think it is funny how we use expressions like, “Head south” to mean things are going wrong. I always wonder how people that are not familiar with American idioms like this interpret these phrases.

I know that it must seem confusing because most people that are not familiar with the idiom probably interpret the term literally.

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