meanings and origin of the British-English phrase ‘to go west’

MEANINGS OF TO GO WEST

In British English, the primary meaning of to go west is to die; this phrase later came to also mean:
to be lost, to be destroyed;
to disappear, to vanish;
to end in failure, to come to grief.

 

EARLY INSTANCES OF TO GO WEST

 

This phrase originated—or gained currency—in British Army slang during the First World War (1914-18).

The earliest occurrence that I have found of to go west in the sense to die is from the Western Mail (Cardiff, Glamorgan, Wales) of Tuesday 22nd September 1914, in an account of a bombardment of the British lines near Soissons, on the Aisne River, in northern France:

One man was splashed with the blood of his comrade, who had been blown in half by a piece of shrapnel a few hours ago. The butt end of his own rifle was chipped off by a broken bit of spent shell.
He was glad of his escape—“a very near call”—but was sorry for the friendwho had gone West,” as he called it.

The second-earliest instance of to go west in the sense to die that I have found is from Local News, in The Berwick Advertiser (Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, England) of Friday 9th October 1914:

Death of a Territorial.—It was with feelings of regret that the news of the death of Mr William Hall, was received on Saturday. The first mangone West” out of our locality [= Chirnside] in this great war.

The earliest transferred use of to go west that I have found is from Letters from the Front, in The Evening Chronicle (Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England) of Wednesday 11th November 1914:

NEWCASTLE SERGEANT’S LETTER.

Writing to his uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. M. Jameson, 8, Walter Terrace, Newcastle, Sergt. Wm. Brown of the 110th Battery, Royal Field Artillery, states that although they have been in action for 18 days, they only had had four men wounded. The weather has been good both night and day, and splendid for marching, of which a great deal has been done. Even in the trenches the moon favours them, for the Germans rarely show themselves in any light, as they are now well aware that they will be popped at by the British infantry, who are always on the watch. The German artillery is firing all day, but their infantry generally wait until it is dark. The big guns sometimes killed one or two men, but the gunners appear to try and fire every house for miles around, and it is a game at which they are very successful. Many of the British soldiers are under the impression that the war will only last a few weeks longer, but Sergt. Brown prefers to “wait and see.” They do not expect to leave the country until after the New Year, so it means another Christmas dinner gonewest.” [note 1]

 

ORIGIN OF TO GO WEST

 

The primary meaning—i.e., to die—of the phrase to go west is probably based on the notion of the setting sun symbolising disappearance or finality.

In the course of January 1915, The Times (London, England) published multifarious explanations sent by its readers. Finally, on Tuesday the 12th of that month, the newspaper published the following, in which it concluded that the phrase may refer to the west as the place of the setting sun and to its identification as the abode of the dead—particularly in Celtic traditions:

“Going West.”

Our correspondents have offered many and diverse explanations why the phrase “going West” should mean to die. Some have been poetical, some erudite, some commonplace and matter-of-fact. We regret to say, as we bring the discussion to a close, that the mystery appears to us unsolved. We dismiss at once the suggestion that the words first came into use amongst our soldiers because a Staff officer employed them at Aldershot, and his “fruity” voice and general appearance tickled the sense of humour of the men. That does not in any way account for the special meaning given them, nor for the fact that some such meaning seems to attach to them over a great part of the globe. The theory that they are an East London phrase, and that their fell significance comes from the fatal consequences which the East-end melodrama attributes to meetings between the “Bad Girl of the Family” and the gentleman with the opera hat and the diamond stud from the West-end, is scarcely more satisfactory. The idea which underlies the words seems to reach very far back in the history of popular beliefs. The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians held it. Dr. Wood gave us a quotation from the “Odyssey,” in which the same word is used for the nether darkness of the shades which occurs elsewhere for the West as the dark quarter of the sky. Mr. Beatty thinks that the soldiers who talk of “going West” must be Munstermen [note 2]. He mentions some curious uses of the word “Wesht” in Cork [note 3] and Kerry [note 4]—which other correspondents explain away—and puts forward the view that it is the shoreless ocean that has led Irishmen to connect the West with the mysteries of death and of the other world. He refers to Claudian [note 5] and St. Brendan [note 6] and Dante [note 7], and he might have added Tundal [note 8], that other Irish traveller to the unknown world, with whose vision the author of the “Divine Comedy” may perhaps have been acquainted. Professor Gollancz points out that “deasil,” the passage from East to West, is lucky, while “widishins,” or, as it is often written, “widdershins,” the passage from West to East, is unlucky. There is plenty of curious lore on that subject. Witches, it is well known, approached the Devil in that fashion, and the right way to make a curse effective was for the speaker to turn his back against the sun. St. Jerome mentions the practice of turning to the East in prayer to “make a covenant with the sun of righteousness,” and Christians in all countries have “orientated” their churches, while in many they bury their dead facing the East—a custom mentioned by the venerable Bede. There are English fishermen who sleep North and South, “because the dead sleep East and West,” and Herrick tells us that those who “set their bed” North and South will be blessed with male children [note 9]. In the Highlands and in parts of Ireland East and West are commonly used for right and left, so that a peasant will describe himself sitting on the “East” or the “West” of a car. The left, it need hardly be said, has always and everywhere been unlucky. It would seem that behind this phrase there lingers some primeval tradition, founded perhaps on sun-worship or on the instinctive feeling that beyond the sunset is the “land of darkness and the shadow of death.”

A quotation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED – 3rd edition, 2011) supports the theory that the phrase to go west is based on the identification, in Celtic traditions, of the west as the abode of the dead; it is from Johnstone’s Edinburgh Magazine (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of October 1833:

The Irish, and the Scottish Highlanders, always describe persons lately dead as having gone west.

Also quoted in the OED is the following passage from a poem of the late 14th or early 15th century, on the theme and with the refrain this warld is verra vanité (this world is very vanity). The OED says that in this passage to go west means to die, but the Dictionary of the Scots Language remarks that it is conceivable that west is the noun waste used adverbially:

Women̄ and mony wilsome wy
as wynd or wattir ar gane west.
     i.e.:
Women and many an erring wight
As wind or water are gone west.
—Source: Pieces from the Makculloch and the Gray MSS., together with the Chepman and Myllar prints – edited by George Stevenson (William Blackwood and Sons – Edinburgh and London, 1918)

 

FRENCH SLANG ÊTRE À L’OUEST

 

The phrase être à l’ouest, literally to be in the west, is used in French slang to mean:
to be under the effects of drugs or of alcohol;
to be out of touch with reality;
to be unreasonable.

I have not discovered the origin of this figurative usage.

 

Notes:

 

1 As I wrote in an investigation into the Christmas Truce of 1914, it had been said that the war that began in the summer of 1914 between the Central Powers and the Triple Entente would be “over by Christmas”, but it was clear in December that this would not be the case. This left many unexpectedly celebrating Christmas without their family. Over the Christmas of 1914, a series of unofficial ceasefires took place along the Western Front.

2 Munster is a province in the south-western part of Ireland.

3 Cork is a county on the south coast of Ireland, in the province of Munster.

4 Kerry is a county on the south-western coast of Ireland, in the province of Munster.

5 In In Rufinum, the Latin poet Claudian (Claudius Claudianus – circa 370-circa 404) tells of a place on the west coast of Gaul where Ulysses found the “silent folk”, i.e., the dead.

6 St. Brendan (circa 484-circa 577) was an Irish abbot, renowned for his legendary journey to the Isle of the Blessed as recounted in Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot – first recorded circa 900).

7 Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was an Italian poet, author of The Divine Comedy (circa 1309-1320), an epic poem describing his spiritual journey through Hell and Purgatory and finally to Paradise.

8 Visio Tnugdali (Vision of Tnugdalus) is a 12th-century text recounting the vision of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven beheld by the Irish knight Tnugdalus – named Tundal (also Tundale, Tungdal) in English translations.

9 In Hesperides, or, The works both humane & divine of Robert Herrick, Esq. (London, 1648), the English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) observed:

Who to the North, or South, doth set
His Bed, Male children shall beget.

And the following poem is from Robert Herrick’s His noble numbers: or, His pious pieces (London, 1647):

North and South.

The Jewes their beds, and offices of ease,
Plac’t North and South, for these cleane purposes;
That mans uncomely froth might not molest
Gods wayes and walks, which lie still East and West.
—Source: 1846 edition (William Pickering – London)

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