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I've noticed a frequent usage of the words uptown and downtown while watching movies made in the USA. Also the word midtown is seldom used.

What is the difference between them? Is possible they can refer to different places and areas in order what city I talk about? Is there a simple way to recognize what exact place the speaker speaks about?

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    What dictionaries have you consulted? Is there any difficulty understanding the dictionary definition? – James K Jul 21 '17 at 20:11
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    Beyond dictionary definitions, some examples (or situations for context) are needed. – user3169 Jul 21 '17 at 20:20
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    @JamesK As the meanings of these terms varies greatly, even inside only a ten mile radius, a dictionary will necessarily leave out many nuances. For example, what downtown means in the Washington DC metro area varies greatly depending on location, context, speaker, and listener. Sometimes it means the waterfront area of Alexandria. Sometimes it means the corner of 236 and 123 in Fairfax, sometimes it means anywhere inside the border of D.C., and sometimes it means the area near the national mall in the northwest quadrant of D.C. This causes much confusion even among natives. – Todd Wilcox Jul 23 '17 at 5:44
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    The OP has not stated that they have consulted a dictionary. They need to show that they have read the definition "Downtown = central part of city, dominated by businesses" and not understood it. As it stands, this question asks for the meaning of the words, and that can be answered by a dictionary. – James K Jul 23 '17 at 6:57
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    @JamesK: As far as I have noticed, sometimes a dictionary definition doesn't match the real meaning used in the spoken language. Or it's just my feeling, I am not a native English speaker. That's why I have asked here. Moreover, according to what you have said, this could be applied to most of the questions here based on "difference between X and Y" and they should be closed? – Nikolas Jul 23 '17 at 9:17
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This depends on what city or town you're talking about. Since you mention the US in your question, I'm going to answer from that point of view.

Manhattan, a part of New York City, famously has all three. According to NYCSubwayGuide, Uptown is the northern part (anything north of 59th Street), Downtown is the southern part (anything south of 14th Street), and Midtown is the part in between (between 59th Street and 14th Street). This is from the tradition in the northern hemisphere of referring to the cardinal direction north as "up" and south as "down". Additionally,

While Uptown, Midtown, and Downtown are geographic regions of Manhattan, the words uptown and downtown can also mean your direction of travel. If you head north or towards the Bronx or Queens, you can say you are headed "uptown"; if you head south or towards Brooklyn, you can say you are headed "downtown."

However, many towns only have a "downtown", which is basically the business district of the town and generally doesn't have anything to do with the cardinal directions (traditionally, such districts are centrally located). In fact, Cambridge Dictionary's American definition of downtown specifically references the "central part of a city". This is the most common meaning of downtown in the US.

On the other hand, the town where I live now only has an "Uptown". The town is built on a hill; our central business district is called "Uptown" instead of "downtown" because it runs along the ridge of the hill, so you must literally go up to get to Uptown from almost any other part of the town. Thus, when you say "I'm headed uptown" here you may be going either north or south, unlike in Manhattan. Another example of this is Charlotte, North Carolina, which also calls its "downtown" "Uptown" for similar historical reasons (and because they think it sounds cooler).

Unfortunately, this means that the only way to know for sure what is meant by one of these terms for a particular city or town is to look it up or ask a local. However, in most cases "downtown" will mean the city's main business district, wherever that happens to be.

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    I don't think it's "Manhattan has all three" so much as "the terms come from Manhattan". – Izkata Jul 22 '17 at 3:31
  • @Izkata I agree with you about downtown, and I don't know of anywhere else that midtown is used (oh, except in Toronto, as mentioned in another comment...probably there are a few more); but I think uptown arose independently in various locations, as it is so very common to build a town on high ground. Its association with ritziness is certainly reinforced by Upper Manhattan, though, along with the generally positive connotations of "up" when juxtaposed with "down". That seemed like more info than the question called for, but I can add it if it seems important. – 1006a Jul 22 '17 at 4:23
  • And Philly has Center City instead of downtown. – Andy Jul 22 '17 at 15:03
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    While those Manhattan borders (14th street, 59th street) may sound arbitrary to outsiders, they are actually quite significant. 14th is the southern border of the city's main grid plan, and 59th is the southern border of Central Park. Both of these considerations have had a significant effect on the city's history and level of gentrification. – Kevin Jul 22 '17 at 19:26
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    You forgot another sense of uptown and downtown. Sometimes uptown means the nice, wealthy part of town, and downtown means the run down poor part of town. One example is the song "Downtown" from the musical Little Shop of Horrors. – Todd Wilcox Jul 23 '17 at 5:37
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Adding on to 1006a's answer:

Most cities have one and only one downtown. Few will have an uptown. The only midtown I know of is in Manhattan.

Metaphorically, downtown is the busy part of the city where things are happening. It is the area with the tallest buildings, or the greatest density, and is usually mostly commercial. It may be where the most well-known or wealthiest companies have offices, and it may also have the best entertainment options. You may "go downtown" to work, our out for "a night on the town".

For example, this is downtown San Diego.

This is pretty much everywhere else in San Diego (not an exaggeration).

Uptown, metaphorically, is where the wealthier people live (for example "Uptown Girl" by Billy Joel). This may be why there are few "uptowns" in many cities, because they have no concentration of wealthy people. This is also why many businesses choose to use "uptown" in their names, because it can sound more sophisticated.

  • Toronto, Canada has all three. Downtown refers to the urban core of the city and midtown is the business district (a well defined area) between "downtown" and the northern (central/east-ish) border of the city. Uptown isn't used often and so isn't well-defined, but will refer to the area between midtown and the northern border. – noahnu Jul 22 '17 at 3:31
  • Sometimes "uptown" and "downtown" refer to the same geographic area! The centrally located rich district. – Todd Wilcox Jul 23 '17 at 5:39
  • Atlanta, Georgia has Downtown and Midtown (we usually capitalize them, for some reason), but no uptown. Downtown is the central business district, and Midtown is north of Downtown. – MJ713 Jul 24 '17 at 17:08
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The directions of “down” and “up” once referred to elevation of the town structures: Uptown was up, away from the local waterways, and downtown was nearer to them.
Downtown was where most of the commerce, trade, and popular gathering happened; uptown was where the wealthier folks lived.

Eventually people began using the words to describe the socioeconomic condition of respective parts of the town or city (habitation), and not whether they were actually higher or lower on the terrain.

See to: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=uptown

Early, there wre poorer people eking out a living in the downtown areas because they couldn't afford to live uptown. The wealthier would prefer to live as far uptown as they could. As the place gets bigger, you'd always have a difference in income, but it becomes more gradual with the emergence of the middle class and with expansion of both the downtown and the uptown areas.

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    I know that other answers addressed the more colloquial uses of the words, but I thought the etymological details were either lacking or incorrect. – can-ned_food Jul 22 '17 at 17:49

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