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What Does It Mean to Go "Belly up"?

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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 20 August 2016
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The phrase, “belly up,” is most commonly recognized in many English-speaking societies as an idiomatic way to describe a condition of being dead, broken, hopelessly failed, or otherwise “done.” It is often used with the verb “go” as in: to “go belly up.” This colloquial slang for a general condition is useful in describing almost any kind of negative scenario.

In terms of the origin of the phrase, most would agree that as a popular idiom, the phrase that came naturally from a literal use to eventually serve as a figurative slang term. The original use of the phrase would have applied to fish and other creatures that, when dead, float in the water or lie on the ground with their stomachs facing upward. Over time, the physical condition and its visual or mental image came to serve as a descriptive way to replace a variety of simple adjectives.

It’s important to know that another similar phrase with a very different meaning can also be reduced to the phrase “belly up.” The entire phrase is “belly up to the bar,” and this phrase is used in some English-speaking parts of the world. The idea of going “belly up to the bar” is that the subject of the reference will be getting close to the bar in order to drink alcohol. Someone who wants to drink with someone in a bar might shorten their entreaty to the simple two word phrase.

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In the more common use of the phrase “belly up,” this idea is often applied to the world of enterprise. This descriptive label can apply to the smallest small businesses, many of which tend to fail in the first few years of operation, or the largest companies, for example, established blue chip firms that surprise financial analysts by failing spectacularly. For example, someone following a financial crisis may claim that a certain large banking firm “went belly up,” where the colorful descriptive nature of the phrase serves to apply the element of surprise and the unlikeliest of the financial failure.

In the most abstract uses of the phrase, the object is not a formal enterprise, but a more nebulous effort like a social movement. Saying that a social movement has “gone belly up” generally implies that it has become less active or visible due to lower interest. In these situations, the idiomatic phrase can be pretty cryptic, and listeners or readers might ask for quite a bit of clarification.

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StarJo
Post 9

@julies - It is so saddening and frustrating to see good restaurants go belly up. Even ones that stay pretty busy are failing these days.

I think that their costs of operation are getting higher than their customer base can sustain. I know several people who used to eat out every week who are now only going once a month, and this has hurt business.

It isn’t obvious to us, because we still see the places with plenty of people inside. However, losing regular customers can hurt worse than being unable to attract casual ones.

Personally, I had to cut down on going out to eat. I hated to do it, but my budget just wouldn’t allow for it. I only hope that my decision doesn’t contribute to my favorite restaurant going belly up someday.

cloudel
Post 8

My friends and I use to use the phrase “belly up” in a much lighter manner than usual. We like to go to the beach often and work on our tans, and we use “belly up” as sort of a command.

We start out lying on our blankets face down. After we have tanned in that position for thirty minutes, the designated time keeper will yell out, “belly up!” Then, we all rotate.

I know that other people on the beach must find this humorous. To us, it’s totally normal, but I can imagine that walking by a bunch of girls, hearing “belly up!” yelled out, and seeing them all flip over like fish in unison would be funny to someone who is never witnessed it before.

shell4life
Post 7

@Oceana - It saddens me that so many institutions that have been constants in communities are going belly up these days. I wish that more people would read an actual newspaper than get their news online.

I write articles for a monthly magazine about cooking, and our company has been downsizing for the past year. So far, my job is safe, but I am scared. It is so easy for people to get recipes and cooking advice online, and that hurts our readership base.

Personally, I make it a point to subscribe to magazines and read newspapers. I figure that anything I can do to help companies like mine keep from going belly up is good.

Don’t get me wrong - if I am in a bind and need a recipe quickly, I will go online to get it. I just don’t let that be my primary source of information.

Oceana
Post 6

I work as a graphic designer at my local newspaper, and we have been living in fear of losing our jobs for the past two years. Newspapers that have been around for over a hundred years are going belly up at an alarming rate, and we know that we could be next.

A couple of years ago, the company started cutting corners. I got my weekly hours cut by 8 a week, and a couple of part-time workers lost their jobs. This made it really hit home to us that our long-standing newspaper could actually be in trouble.

So far, we are still in business, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we did go belly up in the next couple of years. The bosses are taking drastic measures to cut costs, and that scares us.

julies
Post 5

There have been several popular restaurants in our area that have gone belly up over the last few years.

Most of the time we were really surprised by this. These were restaurants that had been around for a long time. They had a lot of regular customers and seemed to be busy.

There was never any knowledge ahead of time. We usually found out by driving there and realizing there were closed.

I know that several companies have had a hard time with the struggling economy. I am sure that when a business finally goes belly up, it is something that has happened gradually over the process of months or years.

golf07
Post 4

When I think of something going "belly up" I think of the original intent of this phrase.

Our family went on a camping vacation every year and I got to explore many parts of the country when I was growing up.

One year we were camping at Lake Elsinore in California, and something had killed thousands of fish in the lake.

When you walked around the lake, all you saw were all these dead fish floating on top of the water. I can still remember the horrible smell of all those dead fish.

Needless to say, we didn't camp there that night and found another spot to pitch our tent. When I hear that something like a business has gone "belly up", I always picture those fish floating on top of the lake.

SkyWhisperer
Post 3

@Charred - That’s a clever observation, coming from a non drinker! I wonder about a larger question though when it comes to social movements that go belly up.

My question is, why do they do so? I would venture to say that in this media crazed world, you only get your fifteen minutes of fame and that’s it.

Your movement gets drowned out by other noise that is clamoring for attention, whether it’s the latest homicide or economic news or international crisis. It’s easy to see why some movements start and die so quickly, leaving only a handful of followers clinging to the shell of what was once a vibrant, popular uprising.

Charred
Post 2

@nony - I’m not a drinker, so I’ve never heard about the expression “belly up” as it regards bar room slang. I suppose there would be a lot more terminology I’d be familiar with if I had frequented those establishments, but alas, I live a sheltered life I suppose.

I do think that the phrase is appropriate, however. I think of the term “beer belly” and so that seems like a good tie-in to doing a “belly up” of the bar, although I doubt that “beer belly” is any part of the formal etymology of the phrase. It makes sense however.

nony
Post 1

I worked in telecommunications for over ten years, so I’m afraid I know too well what the term “belly up” means – at least after the telecom boom died down.

A lot of smaller telecom companies that got into the act after the breakup of the big Bells did well quite well for a time. Deregulation opened up huge markets for them. However, over time they still found they couldn’t compete with AT&T, Verizon and so forth.

These little companies just didn’t have the infrastructure that the big companies had and they couldn’t offer competitive phone rates. As a result they went belly up.

One company I worked for filed for bankruptcy twice before being acquired by another company. We went belly up once over again. Talk about being really dead in the water!

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