‘Rising damp’

Posted on Tue 08 May 2012 @ 10.20pm UTC

(Updated 09 May 2012 to fix typos)

HERE’S A BLAST FROM THE PAST for those of you old enough to remember it:—

rising damp

Rising what?

This had been a well-known phrase in the United Kingdom in the mid-1970s. It wasn’t exactly a popular phrase, but its meaning was understood well enough in those days and is certainly still understood by those who spent their formative years in Swinging Seventies UK.

Basically, rising damp refers to a symptom or appearance of neglect, age, decrepitude, etc. In short, the phrase emphasises personal failure or failing qualities.

In other words, rising damp means:—

any sign, indication, phenomenon or circumstance accompanying something and serving as evidence of its creeping failing, defect or fault because of neglect, feebleness, dilapidation or decrepitness from actual or apparent old age or from lack of or spent youthful vitality

That’s a bit like saying one of these two things:—


If you woke up still breathing, congratulations! You still have another chance. You’ll make it through this day, but we just have to wonder about tomorrow.


My life has a great cast but I can’t figure out the plot.

You’ll see why “creeping,” “old age” and “lack of or spent youthful vitality” are important aspects a bit later.


This is a girl full of aversions, disinclinations and overconsiderations in the way she carries on. It’s as if she’s a 40 or 50 year old instead of someone still in her vibrant 20s — you could smell the rising damp when she’s around.
(Author’s private collection)

One of the various ways these ex-colonial governments reinforce their own rising damp is by persisting in their living the real or imagined glories of their colonial past.
(Author’s private collection)

The Economist used the phrase as headline in a story about flooding in Thailand:—

Rising damp: Waters threaten the capital, the economy and the new government”
The Economist, 5 Nov 2011 | Link

Clearly, the copyeditor who wrote that headline is old enough to remember where that phrase came from — and savvy enough to see that it fits in nicely with the storyline about the Thai authorities lack of ability to control the flooding. That’s why these people get paid for writing words and you don’t. Heh.


The phrase originally came from the construction industry:

rising damp (n) Capillary movement of moisture from the ground into the walls of buildings. It results in structural damage up to a level of three feet.
(Collins English Dictionary: Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition, 2009)

rising damp (n, uncountable, British) a form of damage in which the walls of a building become wet from the ground and begin to decay
(Macmillan Dictionary, online version)

A Google search still shows rising damp to be chiefly used in its original construction industry meaning.

In the soggy temperate climate of the British Isles, rising damp was a fairly common problem  in houses during the 1960s and ’70s. (Probably still is.)

Most prone were houses without a cellar or crawlspace beneath them, or those structures without damp-proof course (‘DPC’) or whose DPC had been damaged or bridged (i.e. a barrier material that failed).

(To be sure, rising damp isn’t limited to temperate places such as the UK. It also occurs in tropical and subtropical regions where the climate is high in humidity.)

To cut a long story short, rising damp is the movement by capillary action (or wicking in normal English) of ground moisture or water through unprotected footings (i.e. foundations) into and up through the concrete wall (i.e. masonry). The moisture seeps (infiltrates) through the inner wall and evaporates inside the building. This increases the moisture load of the interior and leads to dampness and mould.

The net results are:—

  • a visibly darker patch (called a tide mark in the building industry) on the plaster lining of the interior wall;
  • large blistering salt patches resulting from the water evaporation;
  • flaking plaster and paint;
  • swollen skirting boards and even window sills; and
  • a chronic musty or foul smell (associated with wood-decay fungi) growing insidiously stronger when the footing is exposed to more moisture.

The tide mark usually starts at ground-floor level and rising up from there, hence the term.


It’s a little questionable whether rising damp actually made it into mainstream English. We’ll assume that it has (as far as British English is concerned), mainly because so many [older] British people seem to understand what that phrase means and some younger people have heard of it too.

Because of its origins, the non-construction meaning of the phrase is NOT commonly understood by Americans, therefore we can classify rising damp as a British expression.

In any case, rising damp went beyond its construction meaning and started to carry connotations of failure through the madcap British farce sitcom “Rising Damp” (1974-79), produced by Yorkshire Television for ITV. It starred:—

  • Leonard Rossiter (1926-84)
  • Frances de la Tour (b. 1944)
  • Richard Beckinsale (1947-79, father of actresses Samantha and Kate Beckinsale)
  • Don Warrington (b. 1951)

Trivia: The landlord’s cat in the show was called Vienna (photo with Rossiter)

Those of us who had ever watched the series would never forget it. It never disappointed. And, honestly speaking, it was one of those rare TV shows that happen to be enlivened by the appearance of a cat.

The show depicted the failing lives of four people (a landlord and his three bedsit tenants) in a shabby Victorian townhouse in a nameless English town:—

  • the bigoted and conniving landlord is a stingy, seedy, self-regarding divorcée who scams his lodgers and is full of prejudices and suspicious of anyone different from himself (know anyone like that yourself?)
  • an unhappy, nymphomaniac spinster
  • a likeable but wet-behind-the-ears medical student with long hair who remains a virgin into his mid-20s
  • an intelligent-looking lodger pretending to be an African prince who responds to the landlord’s racist ignorance with irony and/or lies about his fictitious African life

For its three-year run, “Rising Damp” was rated the highest-ranking ITV sitcom on the 100 Best Sitcoms poll run by the BBC in 2004 — fully 26 years after the show ended.

That is saying something about the show. It most certainly wasn’t a case of rising damp.

© Learn English or Starve, 2012.

Images: Incremental Decrepitude via Slingshot on the Bleachers | Rising damp in the UK via BWT South East Limited | Vienna the cat in the arms of actor Leonard Rossiter via Thoughtcat | Weight loss ad via Dr Samantha Thomas.

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