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I've searched a lot and found out that down with as a slang phrase means "being in an agreement with something". On the other hand, I know that it also means "death upon something".

So in a sentence like

Down with war!

how am I supposed to know which one of these meanings is applied?

Has this term changed its meaning with time?

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Context may be your best bet here. –  Andrew Grimm Jan 17 '13 at 21:36
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I'm not familiar with the first use. –  Barrie England Jan 17 '13 at 21:37
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@BarrieEngland clearly your not down with it. ;) –  T9b Jan 17 '13 at 21:39
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@BarrieEngland clearly you are not down with the kids. Which incidentally has another use that inverts it again; among groups that would be familiar with the slang term, but not use it themselves, "down with the kids" is often used in a joking manner, the joke being that they are pretending to try to use "young" slang but are clumsy with it. Around my part of the world, "down with the kids" is common in this joking use, the "down with" more generally is not. –  Jon Hanna Jan 17 '13 at 21:54
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@BarrieEngland: popular culture - You down wit' OPP? –  Mitch Jan 18 '13 at 0:53
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2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

This is a simple application of the UP/DOWN Metaphor frame.

As it says in the link above:

What’s UP?
English speakers (like all humans) are oriented vertically with respect to a gravitational field, so the up/down dimension is significant, and English uses it in a variety of metaphor themes. All of them are coherent, i.e, we tend to think of them in the same ways (e.g, LESS, SAD, WEAK, PASSIVE, and WORSE are all negative evaluations, and vice versa.)

a) UP is MORE (DOWN is LESS):
- The prices are rising/falling.
- The stockmarket’s moving up/crashing.
- Turn the volume up/down.

b) UP is HAPPY (DOWN is SAD):
- He’s depressed.
- feeling really up/down about it
- What a downer!

c) UP is POWERFUL (DOWN is WEAK):
- upper/lower classes - superior/subordinate
- the highest levels of the government
- oppressed masses

d) UP is ACTIVE (DOWN is PASSIVE):
- The computer is up/down.
- Are you up for some handball? - Rise to the occasion.
- Down in the dumps

e) UP is BETTER (DOWN is WORSE):
- higher/lower animals
- He fell down on the midterm.
- a rise/fall in performance
- aim high - upwardly-mobile

f) UP is ABSTRACT (DOWN is CONCRETE):
- He’s got his head in the clouds.
- He’s got his feet on the ground.
- Come back to earth.
- higher mathematics
- high-level cognitive functions
- low-level details
- new heights of abstraction
- down-to-earth solution

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The sense the querent asks about doesn't fit in with this at all well. –  Jon Hanna Jan 17 '13 at 22:10
    
Down with X means Move X Down, where the up/down dimension is probably (c) UP is Powerful/Down is Weak. A bas le roi. etc. –  John Lawler Jan 17 '13 at 22:13
    
@JohnLawler Thank you so much.It's awesome! –  Benyamin Hamidekhoo Jan 17 '13 at 22:13
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So what about "down with" meaning "in agreement with", as in the question? –  Andrew Leach Jan 17 '13 at 22:15
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@Jon: I don't really see that as "continuity" at all. In 1959, for example, Esquire magazine was defining down with something, to be: to know something thoroughly, which in essence I feel was always the musician's sense (I've got that down pat). The modern sense is only loosely connected, and probably owes its popularity more to standard slang "semantic inversion" than to a gradual shift of meaning. Plus, to pick up on John's points, down = in is probably a relevant spatial metaphor. –  FumbleFingers Jan 17 '13 at 23:35
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We already have a question covering the origin.

As to your question, "how am I supposed to know which one of these meanings is applied?" The bad news is that English doesn't work on "supposed to" (though good writers do), so there are indeed words and phrases whose meanings include some that are diametrically opposed to each other.

The good news is that this isn't one of those cases.

The exclamation "Down with X!" would state an opposition to X. If I say it, then I am down upon X.

The description of someone, often oneself, like "I'm down with X", means I am in agreement with X. Or if X is a group, not only do I like them, but I get on with them generally. Likewise "he's down with X" and so on.

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