Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Sold down the river

The expression probably first appeared in print around 1837: it was applied to slaves who had been troublesome to their masters in the northern slave states and were sold into much harsher conditions in Mississippi. Since P G Wodehouse used it figuratively in 1927 it seems to have established itself permanently as a boring old cliché pointlessly replacing betrayed.

Sad to see it appear twice in the Guardian last Saturday, applied to football fans who were deprived of a television viewing of England's World cup qualifier, and to the English hacker who was refused permission to appeal to the supreme court against his extradition.


Froog said...

It seems it is my turn to encounter difficulties in registering a comment through Blogger. I tried a couple of times on Thursday, but both times my contribution was gobbled up by gremlins.

I agreed that the increasing frequency of the usage is unfortunate, and that if the phrase is to fulfil any useful role in our language it ought to have a much narrower definition than simply 'betrayed'.

I am distressed to discover that my beloved Wodehouse is responsible for this unlovely linguistic innovation.

I also mentioned that the phrase famously occurs - in its original meaning - in Mark Twain's savage satire on race, Puddn'head Wilson; particularly, if I recall correctly, in a chilling last line. It's also worth remembering that in that novel the prospect of "being sold down the river" is so terrifying that a female slave actually contemplates killing herself and her infant son to avoid it.

Tony said...

Glad you got through eventually.