Origin of the term "Upstate"

victor steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Wed May 18 02:13:47 UTC 2011

Hm... I only deal with NY state indirectly (except when driving through),
but my impression was that NYC was not the main reference point for
Upstate/Downstate. Downstate starts in NYC northern environs and stretches
west and north, although I'm not sure how far. Upstate is somewhere between
Rochester and Albany, but, again, I am not sure how far south it runs
(presumably, it runs east to the Vermont border). Certainly much of Central
New York is referred to as "upstate" by those who are not from the area. But
I have no idea where the imaginary line--or buffer zone--runs between the

I generally try not to use such relative references since I don't know the
precise locations, but I can judge from the references by my NY State
friends. Hence the rough outline above.

In Illinois, on the other hand, there is only "downstate". In fact, people I
new in high school (Chicago) used to refer to UofI as "Downstate" and the
reference appeared to be fairly common. E.g., "Did you decide which college
you're going to next year?" "Downstate." The lower half of the state was
also referred to as "downstate", but that seemed to be more a political
division than a general one. Of course, my exposure was fairly limited, at
that time, so I am only certain of the university reference.

But what other states, aside from NY and IL, would have these distinction?
Not California and they have the best incentive to have such a division of
any state, as there is a big difference between north and south.

As for "prison", isn't there a somewhat stronger distinction between just
being incarcerated and being sent upstate? It never occurred to me prior to
law school that there was a legal distinction between a jail and a prison.
Similarly, when one hears "upstate", he may think "prison is prison". But is
that really the case? Is being in prison completely equivalent to being
[sent] upstate? Or is it only particular kind of prison (e.g., maximum
security) that the moniker applies to? But FWIW, for TV script writers,
"upstate" is certainly some kind of prison for more than just NY.


On Tue, May 17, 2011 at 4:18 PM, Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at gmail.com>wrote:

> OED doen't realize that "upstate" New York is "up" because it is north of
> NYC - or north of whatever part of the state the speaker is in.
> "Downstate" is comparably south,  though without beingoriented to any
> specific location. "Downstate New York" is a rather odd-sounding phrase to
> me, but "upstate New York" could refer in theory to any place north of New
> York City, though I'd say it's usually restricted to the Hudson Valley and
> immediate environs, western New York being referred unimaginatively to as
> "Western New York State."
> JL

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