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Rolling implies rotation and translation. Cranking implies the motion people used to do before power windows and Sliding is what actually happens to the window.

When and why did people start using the expression "roll the windows down," instead of something more descriptive?

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In the UK, we wind them down. –  Barrie England Jan 8 '12 at 18:49
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Sort of like dialing a telephone number. When is the last time you actually used a dial on a phone? –  GEdgar Jan 8 '12 at 21:14
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Or like computer programs that still use a floppy disk as the Save icon. –  Dan Jan 8 '12 at 22:00
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They see me rollin', they hatin'. –  wim Jan 8 '12 at 23:27
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@GEdgar: I have a rotary dial application on my touchscreen mobile phone. –  Keith Thompson Jan 8 '12 at 23:47

4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I think the answer is in your question; rolling was the motion applied to windows before power windows. They did not physically apply force so as to directly slide them down, i.e. pushing them down with their hands, instead, they rolled (rotated) the lever, which in turn caused the windows to raise/lower. It is simply the description of the actual force being applied, not the effects of said force.

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I would consider that cranking and not rolling. Rolling as in roller skates, or roller bearing. –  ja72 Jan 8 '12 at 20:16
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@ja72 See the verb definition (b) of roll. –  Mahnax Jan 8 '12 at 20:19
    
Rolling one's eyes is attested as long ago as 1510 according to Online Etymology Dictionary. The eyes typically do not have a translational motion as a result of this rolling ... –  MετάEd Jan 8 '12 at 21:36

It's a reasonable puzzle and baffled me as a child.

As you say rolling is rotation and translation. Rolling up however means winding something round a spool by rotating the spool (or winding the thing round the spool). Sometimes the spool will be translated, but usually it will be fixed. An efficent way of rolling something up is to crank a winch (using the law of the lever). Ropes on boats are rolled up this way. So it’s plausible that rolling something up became synonymous with turning a crank, even in cases where nothing was wound around a spool. And rolling something down became the opposite action.

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Although I think originally car windows were “let down”, over time the common mechanism was to rotate a lever using a “window handle”, so the common usage became to “roll down” (the physical motion).

Whereas now, the common mechanism is to push an electronic toggle button. Perhaps the new emerging common usage will again return to “let down”.

https://www.google.com/search?q=auto+window+handle&tbm=isch

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"Perhaps the new emerging common usage will again return to “let down”." May be a while. We still say "dial a phone", while pushbutton phones have been around for 50+ years. –  tcrosley Jan 8 '12 at 21:21

If you look up the definition of roll, you will see it involves a movement on an axis:

http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/roll?q=roll

As for crank, the same source states that the movement involved is made in order to start an engine. Therefore, it is more logical that roll a window up/down will be used.

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