La Reine Misère (lareinemisere) wrote in linguaphiles,
La Reine Misère

US English usage question: "Upstate"

As a British English speaker, I've seen a lot of references to 'upstate New York' over the years, and had never bothered myself  too much about the precise definition, as it generally seemed fairly clear from context. And then, this week, I came across a reference to 'upstate Washington'.

So, I did a bit of Googling, and confirmed that my idea of what 'upstate' meant wasn't too far off. The first entry I found with a search for 'upstate definition', for example, was "of, in, or to a part of a state remote from its large cities, especially the northern part." I also came across more references to upstate New York in particular, which  appear to confirm that my (also British) friend in Rochester, NY, counts as living in upstate New York.

My question to US speakers of English is this:
Is the phrase 'upstate + [state name]' often (or ever?) used for states which don't share their name with a major American city?

[Edited for typo]
Tags: american english
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It's never used in Texas. I've only ever heard it said about NY.


February 3 2014, 13:23:01 UTC 3 years ago Edited:  February 3 2014, 13:25:13 UTC

We use it in South Carolina with a different meaning. Here, the southeastern part of the state along the coast is called the Low Country, and the northwestern part is called the upstate, more with the sense of moving toward the mountains. One of the local campuses of the state university is called University of South Carolina Upstate.
Sorry, but I can't help but respond to your icon:

...and #10 has been chosen by lot to be killed? *g*

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I was going to say that, here in Illinois, we have "downstate" but no "upstate", since the major metropolitan area (Chicago) is located in the north. But "upstate Illinois" gets 13,500 Ghits. Still, this is a tenth the number for "downstate Illinois".
I don't see it often, but recently I used "upstate Michigan" to communicate to someone out-of-state that I was talking about something outside Metro Detroit.
(Oh, and by the way, I love your icon.)
As far as I know, it is a NY thing, and if it is used elsewhere, my guess is that it is part of NY influence on the rest of the country.

As someone who used to live in Washington, "Upstate Washington" makes absolutely no sense to me. I live in Idaho now and sometimes say "Upstate Idaho" as a joke to refer to the northern skinny part of the state. I lived in NYC for almost 8 years.
Just out of curiosity: is the skinny bit of Idaho seriously called a panhandle?
Yes, though I don't hear that very much. It is normally just northern Idaho.

Lots of states have panhandles. Alaska, Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, etc.
I'm an upstate NY transplant to CA and have definitely never heard it used for anything other than NY. We also have, of course, the corresponding "downstate" for Westchester/NYC/LI.
When I lived in Delaware, I occasionally heard people refer to "upper" and "lower" Delaware, meaning northern and southern, but never "upstate".

I now live in Washington and hearing someone talk about "upstate" Washington seems really weird to me.
I can tell you it's never used in Alabama or Georgia. And like someone else said, until someone mentioned South Carolina, I would've said it's specific to New York. I think if/when "upstate" does get used outside of New York state, it's probably only used by residents in the state, and wouldn't be recognized by people out-of-state. Though it's obviously understandable to other people when used that way, it just sounds odd.
I grew up in upstate NY and haven't heard it anywhere else. I have heard downstate in other locations - Illinois for example.
Grew up in NYC and now live upstate. I've only heard it in reference to New York and always assumed that it was to distinguish everything above NYC since it's such a major hub and is what people generally think of when they hear NY.
I'm from Georgia, but I spent a couple years in Syracuse, NY in graduate school. I noticed something odd about the use of "upstate" in New York: it always seemed to refer to parts of the state north and west of the speaker, wherever he/she might be. People from New York City, it seemed to me, would refer to Albany as "upstate", but to someone in Albany or Syracuse, only places like Watertown or Massena were "upstate". It didn't seem to be a pejorative term, but it was always clearly exclusionary; no one would say "here in upstate New York".

Also, Syracusans seemed to prefer "Central New York" to refer to their part of the state, and I think Buffalo residents often preferred "Western New York".

Maybe the use of "upstate" comes from the fact that both South Carolina and New York each have their demographic "center of gravity" on their coasts, and the rest of the state is upriver, and thus at higher elevation. I can't think of any other examples offhand, except maybe Louisiana?


February 3 2014, 18:39:14 UTC 3 years ago Edited:  February 3 2014, 18:43:24 UTC

It's not too odd! People in NYC refer to anything above them as "upstate", as they consider themselves to be the hub of the state. The rest of NY generally view the state as a geographic whole, and therefore consider the Syracuse area to be "Central New York" and anything above that "Upstate". And of course, Buffalo is "Western".

HOWEVER, it's usually impossible to tell someone outside of NY that you are from "Central New York" or even "New York" without them assuming you're from the city, so I tend to use "Upstate" in conversation with non-NYers anyway.
An Illinois politician once remarked "The South always begins ten miles south of wherever you happen to be standing." For some people, "downstate" begins at Joliet. (For others, I'm sure Joliet is already "downstate"!)


3 years ago

"Upstate New York" refers to different areas depending on what part of the state you're from. In NYC/Long Island area upstate refers to the rest of the state. If you're from Western New York, Buffalo for instance, upstate refers to everything north of the line from Syracuse to Albany.
Originally from Washington (the state) and I have never heard anyone use "upstate" in reference to anything besides New York. Here in Minnesota, like mentioned above, there's "outstate" for places outside the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area, and there's also "up North" specifically for Northern Minnesota.
I'm from Arkansas and we definitely only use it for NY. Don't know about other places though. We use geological terms like "river valley area" or "the hills" to describe places in our state.


February 3 2014, 23:56:33 UTC 3 years ago Edited:  February 3 2014, 23:56:54 UTC

I lived in Washington state most of my life - 'upstate' wouldn't be all that relevant to us. The east-west distinction is more important here than north-south.
Another long-time Washington state resident who would find anyone using the word "upstate" for anything but NY very, very odd.

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It's never used here in Indiana. We refer to the northern third of the state as, well, northern Indiana :D