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The Up/Down Contrast

Mood:up, uplifting, uppers down, a downer, depressed
Quantity:a raise; over paid lower prices, under paid
Abstraction/Concreteness:castles in the air down to earth
Ethics:high road, higher self low road, base instincts
Status: high class, higher court low class, low level position

The value connotations of theUp/Down contrast are:

    • uprightness, uniqueness, individual responsiblity to one's values, and self-esteem,
    • the stretch from down-to-earth practicality up to aspiration, achievement and goodness.

      Phrases that mediate this contrast:
      Finding its own level, optimum, mean, median
      Floating, buoyancy


Here's a list of important ideas we express using the top/bottom, up/down axis of the body. In each example, watch for vertical words like top, bottom, up, down, above, below, high, low, over, under, and the prefixes super- and sub-.


We use height for both quantity and degree: The foreman got a raise today. Stock prices came down today. Supplies are low. They are highly talented musicians. More tends to mean Up, Less tends to mean Down. The right-angled corners of the box-frame remind us of graphs that present quantitative scientific data, with one variable on the left/right axis and another on the up/down axis.

Excessive or insufficient:

Overachiever, underachiever. Oversalted, undersalted. Oversexed, undersexed. Over is used for too much, under for too little. Both are relative to a mean, median or optimum level.

Quality or value:

High quality goods, low quality goods. The high end market, the low end market. Highbrow (can also mean pretentious), lowbrow.


High comedy, low comedy. That is, sosphisticated, witty and intricate humor, contrasted with unsophisticated humor. Humor also comes from reversing the poles of the up/down axis: Turning things on their head can be funny, or can be merely wrong, as in "You've got it upside down."


Contrast "holding up your end" with "letting people down." These have to do with mutual support, playing your part, and doing your share. There is also responsibility to oneself, which is expressed as "standing up for oneself." The vertical axis is thus an important reminder of individuality, uniqueness, and the stretch between where one stands and what one aspires to.


Speaking of the high road and the low road is a way to contrast idealism and expediency. High morals vs. low morals.


High self-respect, low self-respect. To have a high or low opinion of oneself. This is a subset of the idea of a quantity (a large amount or smaller amount of self-esteem). Stand up for yourself, vs. collapsing and being down on yourself.


Respect: Look up to. Disrespect: Look down on.

Power, control, authority:

Think of the phrases "top dog" and "underdog." Also, "have the upper hand" and to "take the high ground." "To be one up," or "one down" compared to someone.

Relative height often evokes relative power, partly because high things are often bigger. "I have it on high authority." The High Court.

But being higher, by itself, is not always better--it's important to be well-grounded, too. The "high and mighty" can fall or get knocked down. We speak of the rise and fall of a political figure, a government, or an empire. Elected officials get toppled when they are out of touch with their "base of support."

Class, rank, status, position:

In a social structure or organization, we speak of high rank, middle rank, and low rank. High society. High living. Upper class, middle class, lower class, and underclass. Recently, the Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, as used the term "overclass" to mean people not affected by variations in the economy and tax system. Her Highness, the Duchess of X. Someone is high in an organization, in middle management, or in a low-level entry position. Climbing the corporate ladder; social climber.

Sub-ordinate and super-ior positions (these prefixes mean under and over). Some people prefer organizations that are more horizontal, that is, cooperative.

Revolutions started by people with institutionalized power are called "revolutions from above," while those started by people with little power or status are "revolutions from below."

Pretentious or unpretentious:

A "highflier" is someone extravagant, extreme and pretentious. Someone lowly is extra modest. Stuck up. Highfalutin. High-muck-a- muck.


Thumbs up, thumbs down, to indicate a judgement. To "boost" someone can mean to praise them, while to "put them down" means to dismiss or disparage them.


The up side is... but the down side is...


To be elated (elevated?) or depressed (pressed down). To feel "high" or "low," happy or sad, "up" or "down." Drugs: "Uppers" and "downers." "Coffee gives you a lift." "That movie lifted my spirits." " Ice cream calms me down." "His remark really brought me down." To be "in high spirits" or "in low spirits."

Energy level:

High energy, low energy.


"The computer was up, but now it's down again." (A shortening of "up and running"?)


Foundation, substructure or base, with a structure or superstructure above that. Lower things tend to be earlier and more basic, later things cover them up. Getting down to basics.


Levels of development or evolution are often placed on the vertical axis. Even the word "levels" suggests this. Thus molecules are "higher" than atoms, and cells are "higher" than molecules. This builds something like a pyramid, which, because it is of course smaller at the top than at the bottom, indicates that there is always a smaller number of molecules than there is of atoms. This must be so because atoms are parts of molecules. However, we must be careful about our spatial metaphors here, because humans, although they are more highly developed than apes, are certainly not made up of apes, nor are there more apes than humans. Rather, the greater developmental "height" or "depth" of humans means that, compared to apes, they encompass and integrate a greater variety of differentiated parts and functions, including more complex brains and greater cognitive and ethical functions.

Alternatively, a lower developmental level is sometimes pictured as "nested" _within_ the higher level. In such cases, the higher level is bigger than the lower level since it must include (embrace, encompass, comprehend, integrate) the lower level functions. This produces a flat drawing or diagram in which the "lower" level is like a disk surrounded by larger and larger circles of succeeding layers of development. Thus the Earth has a core/sphere of physics, with a sphere of life around that, and a sphere of mind and spirit outside that.


Often levels of abstraction and generality are talked about in a vertical way. Ideas can be too much like castles in the air, not down to earth and specific. The prefixes super- and sub- are signals here: Superordinate and subordinate categories. "Highly abstract" is contrasted with "getting down to the nitty-gritty details."


When things are "stirred up" or "up in the air," they are agitated, undecided, indefinite. When they have "settled down," they are calmer, more definite and decided.


We say someone is "hung up on" something when they aren't getting anywhere--they need traction, they need to be "grounded" to get anywhere. They are dependent on something other than themselves (literally, they hang down from it), instead of standing up by themselves.

Spiritual or instinctual:

One common phrase for the spiritual aspect of the self is one's "Higher Self," which is often contrasted with one's "baser instincts." The MetaSelf model accommodates this meaning of the vertical axis, but it emphasizes instead the idea of a Larger Self or Big S Self, which it locates in the space outside the room on all sides, not just high above it.


To call someone "upright" is to say they are honest and just, two of the greatest virtues. It suggests that they are independent and self- respecting, too. They have their feet on the ground and hold their head high.