go west/south

Jim recently (ish) wrote to ask me about this line he read in Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz:

At the time, I hadn’t completed a deal with the BBC and the whole thing could have gone west.

Jim wondered about that gone west, which seemed to be equivalent to AmE gone south

Twenty-some years in the UK, and I hadn't knowingly encountered that meaning of go west. But it's definitely out there.

Cambridge Dictionary
 gives the sense that Horowitz probably intended, and marks it as "UK informal".

Meaning of go west in English

Dictionary.com defines go west as 'die', and indicates that someone out there is 'ascribing' this meaning  Native American legend, though that can't be where English got it from (the dates don't match up). (I'm not sure I see the purpose of pointing out this incorrect information. Especially when no one asked you to, it's likely to just call more attention to the bad info, not to spread the good info. And "correction can strengthen belief in misinformation".

go west

Die, as in He declared he wasn't ready to go west just yet. This expression has been ascribed to a Native American legend that a dying man goes to meet the setting sun. However, it was first recorded in a poem of the early 1300s: “Women and many a willful man, As wind and water have gone west.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has several meanings for go west, and has the 'die' meaning as 'originally Scottish'. The date in brackets after each definition is the year of the OED's first citation for that sense:
a. Of the sun: to move towards the western horizon; to set, go down. [c.1425]

    (a) Originally Scottish (figurative) To die.  [1532]The sense became widespread during the First World War (1914–18). The relationship between quot. a1532   and the later evidence has not been firmly established. [Apparently ultimately with reference to the west as the place of the setting sun and perhaps also to its identification (esp. in Celtic traditions) as the abode of the dead. The uses at Phrases 1b(b)   probably show a further development of this sense. There is probably no foundation to the suggestion that either sense results from folk-etymological alteration of go whist 
    (b) To be lost or destroyed; to disappear, vanish; to end in failure, come to grief. [1916]

 c. go west, young man: used as an encouragement to seek fortune in the American West; also in extended use.  [1836 in the form go to the West, 1856 Young man, go west]Attributed to Horace Greeley, who, according to Josiah Bushnell Grinnell, gave the latter this advice in September 1851 (see quot. 1891).

The American idiom (c) relates to the opportunity and space that "going west" gave to European-American settlers in the westward expansion of the United States. (Safe to say it did not offer the same promise to the people already living there.) Going west then became a metaphor for seizing opportunity. In contrast, the British senses all seem to relate to the west as the place where the sun goes to bed: it is a place of endings and darkness. 

Postscript: Julian Walker, who writes about English in World War I, has written about gone west here. It includes Eric Partridge's musings about the possibility of cross-contamination between the American and 'death' senses.  (Thanks to Tony Thorne for tweeting about it.)

All this puts an interesting spin on the Pet Shop Boys' cover of the Village People's song Go West. The Village People's song seemed to be about the opportunities found by moving, perhaps to San Francisco:


But the Pet Shop Boys version had a different vibe. Here I cut-and-paste from Wikipedia on the critical reception to their cover (emphasis added): 

Stephen Thomas Erlewine from AllMusic said the song is a "bizarrely moving" cover. Larry Flick from Billboard commented, "Nothing better captures the tone of bittersweet joy and drama that permeates Very than PSB's cover of the Village People nugget, 'Go West'. Covered with thick layers of pillowy synths, the track swaps the male-bonding vibe of the original with a wistful demeanor that's lined with a pensive subtext of loss". In the single review, he described it as a "gorgeous reading", adding that Neil Tennant "gives the happy, male-bonding lyrics a wistful, almost melancholy edge—an odd but successful contrast to the fist-waving chants at the chorus".
The video was notable for its use of Soviet imagery, putting the East–West axis far beyond what Horace Greeley was referring to. But it also has a definite afterlife vibe, with central placement of what surely seems to be a Stairway to Heaven. The West=Heaven (death) connection is helped along by the original Village People lyrics, which promise that life will be "peaceful" in the "open skies". 


I am the happy, happy holder of a ticket to see Pet Shop Boys on their 2023 tour, so I do my best to ask them about this from my position in the umpteenth row. Will report back in late June.

But what about go south?

All the go south quotations in the OED are American, and their etymology indicates that it all started with talk of with stock market prices "going south". Their first citation is from 1920, but usage only seems to pick up in the 1970s, with verbs like head and turn, and with go south (applied far beyond market prices) predominating in this century.

3. colloquial (originally Stock Market). Downward or lower in value, price, or quality; in or into a worse condition or position. Esp. in to head (also go) south.south of: lower than, worse than.

A downward-pointing arrow is common to the graphic treatment of "south" in the maps we're most used to. A downward-pointing slope, as in this illustration, indicates falls in prices. It also seems to equate downward-trending prices with going to Hell:

This is all part of a more general conceptual metaphor UP=GOOD/DOWN=BAD. Given (a) the deep roots of that metaphor and (b) the co-existence of a different meaning of go west in AmE, it's no wonder that the BrE go west feels unintuitive as a metaphor to (at least some) Americans. 


  1. Replies
    1. In Dorothy Sayers’s Strong Poison (1930) there is a courtroom argument about the phrase “take a trip out west.” On the one hand “ ‘to go west’ is a well-known metaphor for dying,” on the other the deceased may have been planning a trip to Barbados.

    2. And in Sayers's Clouds of Witness: "Eight years ago, before the war, I was rich ... Well, most of my money was in Russian and German securities, and more than three-quarters of it went west." (In the story, this is a translation from French j'en ai perdu plus que trois-quarts into colloquial English.)

  2. Hi, I am British/ London area and never heard this experession, if I had read the Horowitz quote, I would have assumed he had meant to say 'go south' and made a mistake. So I never read any particular tone in the pet shop boys song ( my favourite version of it!)

  3. 'The Ghost Goes West' (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0026406/) was always on the TV at Christmas when I was a child. (Well, 'always' in my memory.) I think the going west of the ghost referred simply to its relocation across the Atlantic, with maybe a hint of 'Go west, young man' to seek opportunity. However, 'go west' in the sense of 'break' is part of my everyday (BrE) speech. I noticed yesterday that our iron has gone west.

    1. I remember that movie — a Scottish ghost, wasn’t it?

  4. Yes, a Scottish ghost which was transported to the US with the stones of a castle.

    1. Sorry - that was meant to be a reply to Anonymous's reply to my comment above, rather than a new top-level comment.

    2. The ghost was played by Robert Donat who was English - and not even of Scottish descent - but who had a lock on playing Scots in UK films for about five years. He played a Scot four or five times in the 1930s

  5. I'm not sure that Britons generally associate the idea of "going west" with death or malfunction.
    The founders of the seaside resort in Devon called "Westward Ho!" evidently saw no negative connotations when they chose its name in the 1860s.

    1. But that was surely informed by the novel:
      Take it away Wikipedia: "Westward Ho! is an 1855 historical novel written by British author Charles Kingsley. The novel was based on the experiences of Elizabethan privateer Amyas Preston (Amyas Leigh in the novel), who sets sail with Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh and other privateers to the New World"
      West indeed, but for the resort, that would be an encouragement to come to the West Country.

  6. As a 66-year-old British-born American, I remember 'go west' from my youth only as a euphemism for dying. I vaguely recall an explanation that it derives from an ancient Egyptian belief that the dead go west, to where the sun sets.

    'Go west' meaning to break or fail is new to me, conclusively proving that it must have arisen sometime after 1983.

  7. I've heard this phrase often in an Irish context and it certainly features in The Dead by James Joyce in his collection of short stories Dubliners. That very much focuses on themes of life and death and iirc correctly 'go west' or gone west' means to have died. I think from the notion that the Irish would go west to America and very often never be seen or heard of again.

  8. In Rosemary Sutcliff's 'The Eagle of the Ninth' (set in Roman Britain), the British girl Cottia refers to her father having gone 'west of the sunset'. I don't know whether RS invented the expression, but the OED does say that the idea comes from Celtic mythology.

  9. Decrepit old Brit here who recognises, "Gone west" as a euphemism for death and also the failure of a piece of kit, but hasn't heard it used in everyday conversation for many years.

  10. Makes me wonder whether there was subtext to Greeley's exhortation and to the Marx Bros.' movie.

  11. When I was beginning to learn Argentine tango, I read an article in an American magazine by an American woman, also an aspiring tanguera, who'd taken an extended trip to Buenos Aires "because the rest of my life had already gone south."

  12. Going West to seek fortune may be the subject of several songs, but perhaps the most realistic is in The Eagles' "The Last Resort" because when you reach the ocean you can't go any further: "there is no more new frontier / We have got to make it here."

  13. I am reminded of going west in The Lord of the Rings, where it has connotations of death and the afterlife: "I will diminish and go into the West" and so forth. I suspect Tolkien drew that from the mythological sense.

  14. I am currently reading a 1958 children's SF book, The Domes of Pico by British author Hugh Walters, and in that a character says, "But the whole operation goes west if you can't stick it."

  15. I recently watched an episode of Doctor Who, from 1971, "The Daemons", with the 3rd Doctor, Jon Pertwee. At one point, a piece of machinery overheats and explodes, and the Brigadier states "The machine's gone west. Blown itself up." As an American, I'd never before heard the phrase used that way, and it definitely caught my attention.


The book!

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)