What Is Belly Up?

Belly up is an idiomatic expression in American English used to describe a business, organization, or institution that has ceased to exist or gone bankrupt. The phrase is a metaphor comparing the business in question to dead fish or another animal which has floated to the top of a body of water, with its belly facing upward, after it has died.

Understanding Belly Up

Belly up was first used in 1920 in the work of novelist John Dos Passos, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. As a figure of speech, it is a metaphor, because it is comparing the subject of a sentence to a dead animal. If one were to say, “my father’s business went belly up in 1963,” one would not intend to mean that the business literally died, which would be impossible. Instead, the speaker would intend to metaphorically compare the bankruptcy of the father’s business to the death of an animal.

Belly Up in Modern Parlance

Belly up is most commonly used to refer to a business that has gone bankrupt, which is a common occurrence in the modern American economy. For instance, in 2019, 38,944 American businesses filed for bankruptcy protection, up slightly from 38,032 in 2018, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute.

 Many factors will determine the rate and number of business failures at any given time. A healthy economy might be a reason for an increase in total bankruptcies because the health of the economy could motivate more entrepreneurs to start new businesses. Such a scenario, however, would usually be paired with a steady or falling rate of bankruptcies. During a recession, on the other hand, the rate of bankruptcies would typically go sharply upwards, along with the total number of bankruptcies. If economic stagnation continues, however, the total number of bankruptcies might fall just because the rate of business formation falls along with confidence in the economy.

The use of the term “belly up” became widespread in the 1940s, according to Google Ngram Viewer. Google Ngram Viewer is an online search engine that charts the frequency of the usage of a term in printed sources between 1800 and 2019. Use of the term “belly up” fell through the 1960s, but then became popular again in the 1980s. It reached its all-time most used status in 2012 and the term is still relatively popular today.