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shameless pleading

Stand down

And quit scowling at the drones, Citizen.

Dear Word Detective:  I am curious to learn the origin of the phrase “stand down.” I think that everyone is familiar with its meaning, but this is a curious combination of words and I would be interested to learn its original (literal) usage. The Google doesn’t seem to produce anything useful, so I am turning to you in the hope that you could enlighten me, a humble member of the unwashed masses. — Dave Johannsen.

All right, now here’s a man who’s gotten with the program. Honestly, the hardest part of getting used to Neo-Feudalism is gonna be overcoming what we at the Bureau of Get Back to Work like to call Demon Self-Esteem. I know the 80s were the “Me Decade,” but the New Future is all about doffing your cap when the Kardashians come to inspect the furrow you’re hoeing. Nuff said.

By the way, I happen to have copyrighted the phrase “Google doesn’t seem to produce anything useful,” so you owe me a buck fifty. Keep in mind that Larry Page and Sergey Brin originally wanted to call it “Googol,” a term dreamed up by mathematician Edward Kasner’s nephew Milton back in the 1930s for a very large number, specifically ten raised to the hundredth power. That’s a one followed by one hundred zeros, or roughly the number of spurious answers Google now provides to the average question. But the “googol.com” domain name was already taken, so the lads called their invention “Google,” which, appropriately, doesn’t actually mean anything.

“Stand down” is a specialized use of the verb “to stand,” which, as you might imagine, is quite old and has developed dozens of senses. “Stand” first appeared in Old English (as “standan”) from Germanic roots, and means in its most basic sense, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it regarding people or animals, “to assume or maintain an erect attitude on one’s feet (with distinction, expressed or understood, from sit, lie, kneel, etc.)” or, of things, “to be in an upright position with the lower part resting on or fixed in the ground or other support; opposed to lie.” In addition to various literal uses, “stand” has acquired a wide range of figurative senses, from “to stand by” someone (be faithful and supportive) to “stand” in the sense of “bear, tolerate” (“I could not stand the music in the elevator, so I took the stairs”).

“Stand down” is one of several specifically military uses of “stand” that include “to stand to one’s arms,” meaning “to maintain one’s position in the face of an attack” (the source of the idiom “to stick to your guns,” meaning “to not give in” in an argument, etc.), as well as “to stand to arms,” meaning to assume combat readiness and prepare for action. “To stand down” is the opposite of “to stand to arms,” and means to go off duty or relax from a state of readiness (“‘Stand-down’ was the corresponding order at the end of the Danger Period, used in like manner as an expression for a definite point of time,” 1925). The “down” in “stand down” doesn’t mean literally taking a seat, any more than the command “at ease” means to lounge on the nearest couch, but the contrast is to “on duty” status and alert readiness. “Stand down” first appeared in print in 1919, just after World War I, so we can assume that the term originated in that conflict.

Most uses of “stand down” I’ve found in print are in the military sense, but it is used occasionally in the sense of “to back off” or “to stop an aggressive action” (“Medical marijuana protesters urge feds to stand down,” 10/11). Here in the US, “stand down” seems to be commonly used as a name of community programs and public-awareness campaigns designed to help military veterans facing endemic unemployment and homelessness (“Stand Down gives veterans chance to get help, give back,” 10/13/11).

2 comments to Stand down

  • Sylvia Joyce

    Dear Word Detective,

    If it originated in World War I, could it be that “Stand down” was actually a literal command to soldiers being relieved that they should step “down” from the raised firing step to “stand” in the bottom of their trench?

  • In recent years I’ve seen “stand up” as an antonym to “stand down,” even though the phrase already had the antonym “stand to.” Is this called a back formation? I suspect that some people heard the phrase “stand down” and, unaware of “stand to,” decided it needed an opposite, “stand up.”

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