Getting Down with “Uppers”

Recently I was reading a Latin American novel in a British translation and ran across the expression “on his uppers.” I’ve seen variations of this phrase before, always in negative contexts. It makes little intuitive sense to an American for whom “uppers” are usually stimulants or otherwise elevating experiences. The common contexts for this expression suggest something more like what we call “downers.”

This time I decided to check it out.

It does turn out that “uppers” is British public school slang for students of “upper schools,” sort of like our “secondary schools.” But that can’t be the meaning here.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms provides a clear explanation:
Poor, in reduced circumstances, as in . . . The Smiths try to hide the fact that they're on their uppers. First recorded in 1886, this metaphoric term alludes to having worn out the soles of one’s shoes so badly that only the top portions remain.
So it means roughly the same thing as British “skint” (US “broke”}.

Other sources provide the fuller but seemingly paradoxical form of the expression “down on one’s uppers.”

Having recently discovered a hole in the sole of my expensive Ecco shoes, I can understand continuing to use worn footwear; but one wouldn’t continue to wear uppers if the soles were completely gone, so this has to be a joking exaggeration enhanced by the addition of “down to.”

The expression is so widespread in UK English that I wonder whether all speakers realize the allusion to worn shoes embodied in it.

I also found that in my copy of the 1997 American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, the  proofreaders had missed a slip-up in their definition. The reason I inserted the ellipsis in my quotation is that the actual sentence begins: “Poor, in reduced circumstances, as in as in. . . ” Repetitions like this are notoriously hard to spot, but still—what a downer.

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