Did someone say ‘onwards and upwards’ to you, and you’re not sure what it means? This article will look at the definition, meaning, and examples of this idiom.
In a nutshell, ‘onwards and upwards’ is a phrase that sets an optimistic, positive tone by implying that a person or endeavor will become more and more successful.
The idiom ‘onwards and upwards’ means ‘toward a better condition or higher level,’ according to Merriam-Webster. According to the Cambridge dictionary, the definition is ‘becoming more and more successful.’
‘Onwards and upwards’ can be used in a number of different contexts. For example, if you are speaking with someone that is taking on a new endeavor and you want to encourage them, you could say ‘onwards and upwards!’ to indicate something like ‘I hope you go on to be more successful and achieve even greater things.’
Sometimes, ‘onwards and upwards’ is used after a string of bad luck to indicate that a person still has hope that things will improve. For example, a football coach might say ‘onwards and upwards!’ to a team after their latest loss as a form of encouragement to keep moving forward and indicate an attitude of hope for the future.
It isn’t uncommon to hear this phrase said in a lighthearted, jokey manner. For instance, a person might say ‘onwards and upwards!’ when they have been enjoying a break, but it’s time to continue with their work.
The definition of the word ‘onward,’ when used as an adjective, is ‘directed or moving forward.’ When used as an adverb, the definition is ‘toward or at a point lying ahead in space or time.’
The word ‘upwards’ has several different definitions, according to Merriam-Webster. The definition that is relevant to the phrase ‘onwards and upwards,’ however, is ‘in a direction from lower to higher,’ ‘toward a higher or better condition or level,’ or ‘directed toward or situated in a higher place or level.’
When you break down the definitions of each word in the phrase ‘onwards and upwards,’ you see that the meaning is fairly straightforward and not particularly elusive. The idiom literally means, in the simplest terms, ‘moving forward and moving up.’
Now that we know what ‘onwards and upwards’ means let’s take a look at where this phrase originates.
The word ‘onwards’ is attested from around 1600, while the word ‘onward’ without the adverbial genitive -s dates back to the late fourteenth century. Stemming from a combination of the word ‘on’ and the adverbial suffix ‘ward,’ ‘onward’ was first used as an adjective meaning ‘moving on or forward’ in the 1670s.
Coming from the combination of the adverb ‘up’ and the adverbial suffix ‘-ward,’ ‘upwards’ comes from the Old English ‘upweard’ or ‘upweardes’, meaning ‘up, toward heaven.’ There are similar words in Middle Low German, Dutch, Middle Dutch, and Middle High German. The word is thought to have first been used as an adverb around 1600.
With some idioms, there is a clear origin point that can be traced back to some fascinating occasion in history or the history of language. With others, though, it isn’t as easy to pinpoint precisely where the phrase comes from. Unfortunately, this is the case with ‘onwards and upwards.’
One of the earliest known uses of the phrase appears in a speech that Frances Ann Kemble gave at the Lenox Academy in Massachusetts:
"A sacred burden is this life ye bear:
Look on it, lift it, bear it solemnly,
Stand up and walk beneath it steadfastly.
Fail not for sorrow, falter not for sin,
But onward, upward, till the goal ye win."
It is a shame that we can’t know when and where this phrase first originated, but it’s fair to say that it likely stretches back further than this nineteenth-century Frances Ann Kemble poem.
Now that we have a better sense of the meaning of ‘onwards and upwards’ and where it comes from, let’s take a look at how you can use this idiom in a sentence.
‘Onwards and upwards’ is just one of the thousands of fascinating idioms and phrases in the English language.
If you want to encourage someone to look to the future and aim for success, ‘onwards and upwards’ is a short and sweet idiom you can always have at your disposal. It can also be a useful way to give yourself a boost if you are feeling bogged down or disappointed by your current circumstance. If you’re feeling down or psyching yourself up for a big new venture, you can remind yourself to look ‘onwards and upwards!’
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