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.
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.