Belly Up

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 that has floated to the top of a body of water, with its belly facing upward, after it has died.

Key Takeaways

  • "Belly up" is an idiomatic expression in American English that describes a business, organization, or institution that has ceased to exist usually due to financial difficulty.
  • One of the earliest uses of the phrase was by John Dos Passos in 1920 in reference to labor but the phrase is thought to have originated in the 17th century.
  • "Belly up" is most often used when referring to a business that went bankrupt.
  • Up until the 1940s, the word was seldom used, however, it saw a sharp increase in the 1960s and further in the 1980s, hitting peak usage in 2012.

Understanding Belly Up

One of the first uses of "belly up" was in 1920 in the work of novelist John Dos Passos. He stated, "Labor's belly up completely—The only hope is the I.W.W. [union]." The phrase is thought to have originated in the 17th century and is attributed to William Douglass. 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.

In 2020, total bankruptcy filings were 529,071. The increase was due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns that ensued. Or, to phrase it another way, "The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in 529,071 businesses to go belly up in 2020." In this instance, and often, "belly up" can often come across as casual, and should not be used in referring to something serious or tragic, like the bankruptcies caused by a global pandemic.

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 beginning in 1800. The term “belly up” was not used often until a sharp rise in the 1960s, with an even sharper increase in the 1980s. It reached its all-time most used status in 2012, and the term is still very prevalent today.

Article Sources
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  1. The Free Dictionary by Farlex. "Go Belly Up." Accessed March 2, 2021.

  2. Lexico. "Belly-Up." Accessed March 2, 2021.

  3. American Bankruptcy Institute. "Total Bankruptcy Filings Register Slight Increase in Calendar Year 2019; First Year-Over-Year Increase in Eight Years." Accessed March 2, 2021.

  4. American Bankruptcy Institute. Bankruptcy Statistics. "December 2020 Bankruptcy Statistics - State and District." Download. Accessed March 2, 2021.

  5. Google Ngram Viewer. "Belly Up." Accessed March 2, 2021.

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