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WWWJDIC: [天地無用]{てんちむよう} (exp) (yoji) do not turn upside down

I see this on some cardboard boxes in the context of shipping and handling. Why is this expression used to indicate "this side up", or where does it come from?

I can understand that 天 and 地 refer to up and down, but how does 無用 (useless, futile, prohibited) play a role in this phrase?

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    無用 plays the role of prohibiting the action (of turning the 天 side to the 地 side). As you mentioned, "prohibited" is a meaning of 無用. – Blavius Aug 26 '15 at 1:36
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Yes, many Japanese wonder why, too.

The truth is that it's an obsolete usage of 天地 (except in this idiom!). 日本国語大辞典 (kind of the OED of Japanese) apparently has a definition:

てん‐ち 【天地】

(...)

(6)(─する)上下をひっくりかえすこと。

*滑稽本・早変胸機関〔1810〕「裾廻しは天地(テンチ)するだよ」

that is, 天地 once meant for "to turn upside down", at least attested on 1810 in Edo period. Thus, 天地無用 means "must not turn (it) upside down", which makes (made) great sense.

But since this meaning has dropped from usage and 無用 for "must not" has become an old-fashioned wording too, one third of Japanese people end up taking it as "Don't care about top and bottom", which is the exact opposite of the original meaning.

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