OnWords: Shutdown

Jan 22, 2019

For some reason, the word shutdown has been on my mind lately…but let’s look at the word itself. 

Like many in English, it’s a compound word, and my copy of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary from 1974 still lists it with a hyphen. 

That same source notes the first use of shutdown in print as coming from 1888, so shutdowns are nothing new.

The OED examples are from industry—factories and oil wells, specifically—so it seems fitting to use shutdown to describe ceasing the work of a highly technocratic government.

But as a word, shutdown is kind of weird. Shut could refer to literally closing a factory door or stopping the flow of oil through a pipeline, but down seems metaphorical, indicating lower levels of work, for instance. 

Down, in that case, implies something imagined on a graph, with less work lower down.

Shutdown, then, seems not just temporally tied to industry but intimately tied with its physical attributes and obsession with metrics.

Fitting, then, that we’d shutdown an operating system on a computer instead of, say, turning it off; computing is a series of processes, not a simple switch.

Maybe less fitting, the word found its way into car lore, notably in the song “Hey, Little Cobra” by the Rip Chords, promising all others at the track that the Cobra will “shut ‘em down.”

Like other English idioms, though, the metaphorical nature of shutdown has largely been lost, working as much by association as by image.