Tuesday, 25 May 2010

No word for the upstairs?

The Guardian featured recently a series of extracts from his new book At Home. Introduced here - The secret life of your home (The Guardian, 15 May 2010):

Ever wondered why forks have four prongs? Or why we choose salt and pepper over other spices? For his new book, Bill Bryson took a trip around his own house to find out why we live the way we do

It looks rather good overall, and further extracts were The story of the electric light (17 May) and The history of the toilet (17 May), the latter also covering stairs and the lawn.

Stairs are a sore point at the best of times; Clare and I live in a house with ancient irregular death-trap stairs that have left us both needing medical attention on a couple of occasions, in line with the statistics Bryson cites:

Even on the most conservative calculations, however, stairs rank as the second most common cause of accidental death, well behind car accidents but far ahead of drownings, burns and other similarly grim misfortunes.

However, aches and pains aside, I couldn't help griping at a section in the Bryson extract, one that exemplifies how easy it is even for good writers to make daft linguistic assertions.

In passing, one linguistic curiosity is worth noting. As nouns, "upstairs" and "downstairs" are surprisingly recent additions to the language. "Upstairs" isn't recorded in English until 1842 (in a novel called Handy Andy by one Samuel Lover), and "downstairs" is first seen the following year in a letter written by Jane Carlyle. In both cases, the context makes clear that the words were already in existence – Jane Carlyle was no coiner of terms – but no earlier written records have yet been found. The upshot is that for at least three centuries people lived on multiple floors, yet had no convenient way of expressing it.

No noun usage of "upstairs" and "downstairs"? Uh, so what? Even accepting these Oxford English Dictionary citations as the first for the noun forms 1, lack of "upstairs" and "downstairs" as nouns is no handicap to expression. Now and in the past, citations abound to people living on, and moving between, different levels of houses, all easily expressed using "upstairs" and "downstairs" as adverbs and adjectives (see Google Books for 1700-1800: upstairs and downstairs). Furthermore, there are and were plenty of nouns and noun phrases referring to individual floors and levels of houses. Again looking at 1700-1800, we can find cellar, ground floor, first floor, second floor, etc, attic, upper room, above stairs, below stairs, mezzanine, principal floor, and no doubt others.

With such a varied terminology available, Bryson's claim that

... people lived on multiple floors, yet had no convenient way of expressing it.

appears to be completely unjustified: a variant on the "language X has no word for Y" meme that's frequently discussed at Language Log.
- Ray

1. The OED's "downstairs" noun citation looks OK

1843 MRS. CARLYLE Lett. I. 254 The old green curtains of downstairs were become filthy

but the "upstairs" one looks dubious:
b. quasi-n.
1842 S. LOVER Handy Andy xiv, The ogre's voice from up~stairs
- Oxford English Dictionary

Comparing with, say, "the ogre's voice from above", this usage of "upstairs" looks solidly adverbial to me. However, it's irrelevant, as it's not difficult to beat the OED for citation dates these days. I find that "upstairs" as a noun predates the OED citation by 30+ years:

All the lanterns and some of the globes which were tied in the upstairs of my house were broken to pieces
- The Literary Panorama, 1810

The place of dancing is generally the up-stairs, or loft of a farm-house, whose owner readily lends it for the occasion free of expence, together with every other corner, above and below, for the accommodation of the drinkers and carders.
- The Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, 1806.

Addendum (upgraded from Comments) - trabizonspor writes:

The fods have conned you again with the long s. For example La Calprenède trans Cotterell "Cassandra" (1667) has a couple of upftairs [link]. Pepys around the same time is using "above stairs" e.g. [link]

My impression is that this minor literary phenomenon takes off in England post-Restoration. So instead of Mr Bryson's humdrummery it might have been interesting to waffle about English bibles and social stratification (Him Upstairs as monarchs or gods - eg metaphorical use in religious/political ambit in 1659 [link]. I suppose you could even try to drag in the rebuilding of London after the fire. But it might not sell as well as the house that Bill built.

Thankf! I didn't look in the 1600s, as I was mostly interested in the century leading up to the OED citations (and specifically in the noun form).
- Ray


  1. One of my favorite authors, Mark McGarrity (aka Bartholomew Gill) was originally said to have died by "falling down the stairs." In his obit, it says he died when he "fell and hit his head while trying to climb into his apartment through a window." In any case, I enjoyed his Peter McGarr mysteries set in modern Ireland. The mystery here is how on earth does one get killed climbing through a window? Particularly when it was shortly after the publication of his "Death of an Irish Sinner." This is an undiluted send up of of the sinister Catholic organization Opus Dei. There are those of us who would not put it past them to "arrange" a little accident. Of even greater interest is that there is no Wikipedia entry for McGarrity. I also distinctly remembered discussion of this issue on the Net and it has been scrubbed. I was surprised to find out that McGarrity was actually an American who graduated from Brown in 1966 (when I was there) but then did graduate work at Trinity in Dublin and lived there for a while.
    Moral: Don't mess with Opus Dei
    (BTW, one of the mysteries is "Death of an Ardent Bibliophile.")

  2. One or two other obits explain it a bit more clearly:

    The 20-foot fall from a stairway that killed McGarrity was ruled accidental.

    Authorities said he might have misplaced his keys and tried to reach through a window to get into his second-floor apartment when he toppled over a railing.

    - LA Times, July 06, 2002

    I see a few conspiracy theories around, but it's the kind of stupid accident that could happen to anyone doing something precarious.