Why “Down East?”

Just where does this term come from anyway? And what does it mean?

by Michael Erard
Dating to the 1820s, the term “down east” or “downeast” refers to a direction in which ships sail. As Colin Woodard explained in his book The Lobster Coast, “the prevailing winds on the Maine coast blow from the southwest in the warm months, so ships from Boston were able to run downwind as they sailed along Maine’s north-easterly-trending coast.” It follows that when the same ships returned to Boston, they were sailing upwind — and indeed, many Mainers still speak of going “up to Boston,” despite the fact that the city is approximately 50 miles south of Maine’s southern border.

Seems straightforward, right? But the term still confuses, for a couple of reasons. For one, we now have a particular stretch of coast known as “down east,” consisting of the Washington County coastline (and perhaps parts of Hancock County’s, depending who you ask). The 1951 Dictionary of Americanisms, however, includes the term “downeast” and reinforces its directionality, including Canada’s New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island in its definition. The Webster’s Dictionary definition reads: “In or into the northeast coastal section of the U.S. and parts of the Maritime Provinces of Canada; in or into coastal Maine.”

Another source of confusion is that there is no corresponding term for the opposite direction. Boston as “upwest?” And for that matter, those prevailing summer winds shift with the seasons. So in winter, when the winds come from the northwest, should “down east” not become “up east?”

Or is it all really just a state of mind?


Michael Erard

Michael Erard is a journalist and linguist. He's a contributing writer at The Morning News and author of Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.