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TWTS: It's all downhill from here. Or is it?

When it’s “all downhill from here,” there’s some ambiguity about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

A friend of Professor Anne Curzan recently pointed out that the issue with this expression is that it’s almost an auto antonym. That is, a word or expression that can mean its opposite.

If someone tells you they’ve wrapped up the hard part of a project, and now it’s all downhill, that’s a good thing. It means that things are getting easier.

However, if someone tells you that a particular business has gone downhill since a new owner took over, that’s not a good thing. It means things at the business have only gotten worse.

Again, neither of these cases are perfect auto antonyms, because even though we certainly think of one as good and the other bad, “getting easier” and “getting worse” aren’t exactly antonyms.

One thing that we considered is whether there could be a distinction between “it’s all downhill from here” as always something good vs. “things are going downhill” as always something bad. Unfortunately, it’s not that clear-cut.

Here’s an example from a book review in the Christian Science Monitor: “The best line of the book comes early. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there.” In other words, the book only gets worse.

Compare that to this example from an article about running in Today’s Parent: “Ease into your routine with short runs. Warm up by walking the first five minutes then jog slowly. From there, it’s all downhill.” This time, things get easier.

Fortunately, context usually makes the meaning clear, as in the above examples. However, that’s not to say we can’t come with more ambiguous examples.

A fair question to ask is whether this ambiguity is a problem. Probably not. Most of the time, context makes it completely clear whether someone means things are getting easier or worse.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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