Sold down the river


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Sold down the river'?

Other phrases with

Betrayed or cheated.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Sold down the river'?

This phrase originated in the Mississippi region of the USA during slave trading days. Slaves who caused trouble were sold from the northern slave states into the much harsher conditions on plantations in the lower Mississippi.

The earliest reference I can find to the phrase in print is in The Ohio Repository, May 1837:

“One man, in Franklin County has lately realized thirty thousand dollars, in a speculation on slaves, which ho bought in Virginia, and sold down the river.”

The figurative use of the phrase, meaning simply to deceive or cheat, began in the early 20th century; for example, this piece from P. G. Wodehouse’s Small Bachelor, 1927:

“When Sigsbee Waddington married for the second time, he to all intents and purposes sold himself down the river.”

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.

Trend of sold down the river in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.