Ian McMillan: The many ups and downs of a linguistic minefield

I’ve had an up and down sort of week, let me tell you. Or should that be a down and up sort of week? Well, to be completely accurate, I’ve had an up and down and down and up and up week. From that description you might think I’m a flag on a flagpole but all that’s actually happened is that I’ve been wandering around South Yorkshire.

I went Up Wombwell, then I went Down Darfield, then I went back Down Darfield because I’d forgotten something. I then went Up Wombwell, and finally I went Up Wombwell once again. Good job I don’t live in the Lancashire village of Up Holland or County Down across the water or I wouldn’t know my Up from my Down.

I’ve been around for a long time but this up/down business has only just struck me as odd. Why do I go Down Darfield when, as I noticed the other day, I’m actually going along level ground or almost up a slight incline to get to the village centre along the exotically-named Nanny Marr Road? I know that I go up a hill to get into Wombwell but that’s only because I’ve just come down a hill, so to be completely accurate it should be Down/Up Wombwell.

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Then, when I was in Wombwell, I heard somebody say on their mobile “I’ve just come down Wombwell from our house and then I’m going up Darfield.” How can that be? Have the laws of physics been altered while I was gazing at displays of my old shirts in the charity shop window? When I’ve been in Barnsley town centre I’ve overheard lots of conversations that included going Up Gawber, Down Kendray, Up Ardsley, Down Thurnscoe and Up the Top Of Dodworth Bottoms. More ups and downs than the Isle of Man ferry in winter. It’s like being in a lift.

I’ve worked out a theory, though. Maybe you can only go Down the place you live; I live in Darfield so I go Down Darfield; I go to Wombwell to the shops so I go Up Wombwell. Possibly. But where does the Up/Down locution reach its limit? Is there a geographical cut-off point to do with size? I’ve noticed you never go Up or Down a town by name. I’ve never heard anybody say they’re going Up York or Down Harrogate. Mind you, they do go Down Town and Up Town, they just don’t name the place. It’s a linguistic minefield, let me tell you.

Imagine, then, if I was a spy, sent from the south of England to keep an eye on the people of the North and their strange habits. Imagine I’d been given a new identity and a false moustache. Imagine I’d ventured out of my safe house and, in answer to a passer-by’s cheery greeting, said “Hello, my old flower, I’m just going Up Darfield!” and it would be as though a wrong note had been played on a piano. The passer-by would go pale and say “But… you’re in Darfield! You can’t go Up Darfield if you’re in Darfield! You must be a spy!” And I’d attempt a flustered bluster but the passer-by would shout “Spy! Spy!” and I’d run away, false moustache flapping like a rare moth, all the way Up Darfield. I mean Down Darfield.