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All Downhill From Here

downhill copyA friend of mine’s daughter spotted a (semi-) auto-antonym — a word that has two opposing meanings — that was not on my radar: downhill. As she pointed out, the word can be positive when we use it metaphorically to refer to something getting easier from this point forward, and it can be very not positive when we use it metaphorically to refer to something (or everything!) getting worse from this point forward. It’s clearly not a perfect auto-antonym in that the meanings are not exactly semantic opposites (easier vs. worse), but it’s not outside the ballpark.

That said, as some of you are probably already thinking, the phrasing might matter in terms of what downhill means. “It’s all downhill from here” is one thing. “Things are going downhill” is something else.

Well, maybe.

Merriam-Webster online provides as the second definition of the adverb downhill: “toward a worsened or inferior state or level — used especially in the phrase go downhill.” (The adjective downhill is defined as both “not difficult: easy” and “progressively worse.”)

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language online specifically cites the expression “all downhill from here” in its fourth definition of the adjective downhill: “Involving fewer challenges or less difficulty than before; easier: The worst is over it’s all downhill from here.

The Phrase Finder, in a post by TheFallen in 2003, explicitly links the distinction in meaning to the phrasing, explaining that “it’s all downhill from here” means it is going to get easier (through the metaphor of cresting a hill and heading down) and “to go downhill” refers to things becoming worse (perhaps linked to line graphs where downward trends are often not good). The brief entry ends with the observation that “it’s all downhill from here” may sometimes be used ironically because of its double meaning.

My gut told me that “it’s all downhill from here” could refer to deteriorating conditions without irony. An informal poll of colleagues bolstered my suspicion. And a search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) was the nail in the coffin.

It is actually hard to find in COCA an example of “all downhill from here (or there)” meaning that things are getting easier; they consistently refer to things getting worse. Here are just three examples:

The BDOYL [Best Day of Your Life] begs the question of why girls are so eager to get married if it’s all downhill from there. After the vows, does life hold only lesser happinesses, the mildly unfulfilling expectation that today might be the Second Best Day Of Your Life — but only if it’s really, really good?  (Kerry Reichs, The Best Day of Someone Else’s Life, 2008)

[Kevin] Spacey, who previously had won a supporting-actor Oscar for 1995′s ‘The Usual Suspects,’ recited his character’s haunting opening words from the film during his speech: “This is the highlight of my day. I hope it’s not all downhill from here.” (The Denver Post, 2000)

The best line of the book comes early when a client tells Deets, “I’m so glad you are an older man. ” He replies, “I wish I could share your enthusiasm, Mrs. Schmidt.” Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. (The Christian Science Monitor, 1993)

The adjective phrase “all downhill” on its own also regularly refers to deteriorating conditions, as in these three examples:

People used to say when you get to age 40 it’s all downhill. Then it was when you were 65 it’s all downhill. With time it was when you get to be a 100 it’s all downhill. Then it was when you get to age 125 it’s all downhill. I’m here to tell you that if you take good care of yourself, you take good care of your heart and your head, it just gets better and better. (Michael Brickey, Defy Aging, qtd. in Futurist, 2001)

It was all downhill in downtown Oakland after the earthquake. The quake wrecked a lot of office buildings, and the economy went in the tank. (San Francisco Chronicle, 1999)

The Dow Industrials opened on the plus side, but then it was all downhill for the rest of the day. (CNN’s Moneyline, 1990)

Scattered in between are instances of “all downhill” referring to things getting easier, as in this passage about running:

Ease into your routine with short runs. Warm up by walking the first five minutes, then jog slowly before gaining your natural rhythm. From there it’s all downhill. (Today’s Parent, 1999)

To what extent is the potential ambiguity a problem? In almost all the COCA cases, it is clear with very limited context which meaning is intended. The question of ambiguity appears on WordReference.com, where someone poses a scenario in which the hypothetical actor, Matthew Axaxt, who has previously won five awards for Actor in a Leading Role of the Year, wins Screenplay of the Year. He begins his acceptance speech by saying, “ Thank you. This is the first screenplay I have ever written, so I think it is all downhill from here!” The question: What meaning would you expect in this context?

The first commenter reads it as the actor saying that he will never reach these heights again, “so his life will be downhill from this high point.” The second commenter disagrees:

My understanding is that he means that if his first ever screenplay was so good as to win this award, despite his inexperience, then with the benefit of experience it can only get easier to write more and even better plays; they will practically write themselves, and before long he will be inundated in awards.

I have to say, I find it not overly ambiguous: As I read it, odds are this wording in this context would be meant as a modest statement that implies that the actor couldn’t possibly expect to achieve this kind of honor again. But were someone to mean it less modestly, how wonderfully convenient to have “all downhill from here” unironically ambiguous in such a context.

Some readers may feel tempted at this point to promote efforts to disentangle these expressions to clarify when things are getting easier and when they’re getting worse. I think that would be an uphill battle.

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