Origin of the term "Upstate"

Lynne Murphy m.l.murphy at SUSSEX.AC.UK
Thu May 19 12:13:06 UTC 2011

Sorry--didn't read all the way through the digest before sending off my two
cents. Just want to second everything Victor's said and add that to me as a
west-central NYer, 'downstate'  is anything that's in that projection of
the state that's south of Albany.. The Southern Tier (Binghampton, Ithaca,
Elmira)  is not part of downstate, but lies to the northwest of 'downstate'.

(Map of southern tier:

Map of downstate/upstate:
Note that this uses Jonathan L's definition of 'upstate', but then says
that western NY is often included in 'upstate':


--On 18 May 2011 03:13 +0100 victor steinbok <aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM> wrote:

> 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 two.
> 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.
> VS-)
> 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

Dr M Lynne Murphy
Senior Lecturer in Linguistics
Director of English Language and Linguistics
School of English
Arts B348
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QN

phone: +44-(0)1273-678844

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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