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I was watching The Simpson series. In season 7, episode 12, Bart exposes a t-shirt on which the phrase "DOWN WITH HOMEWORK" is written. Then the entire students in the classroom start a riot all of a sudden.

The "down with homework" phrase on Bart's t-shirt

What does this phrase mean? Why does it start a school riot?

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Might point out that the pencil below the text is not only broken, but the small bits of the broken pencil floating in the air show that it has just been broken; meaning the visual of the pencil having just been broken attempts to restate the meaning of the statement above it. –  blunders Aug 4 '12 at 15:21
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The year was 1968. We were on recon in a steaming Mekong delta. An overheated private removed his flack jacket, revealing a T-shirt with an ironed-on sporting the MAD slogan "Up with Mini-skirts!". Well, we all had a good laugh, even though I didn't quite understand it. –  Ben Brocka Aug 4 '12 at 16:14

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

"Down with" is simply an idiom, used to express negative emotions toward something. A close cousin of "Down with homework" could be "Say no to homework". You might hear protesters use this kind of language while chanting at a demonstration (it's short, and to the point); it also makes it way onto T-shirts, and even magazine covers from time to time.

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One use of "down with <object>" is to state the speaker's desire to do away with the object. This usage also contains a call rousing others to action, usually aggressive, to achieve that goal.

In this case, Bart's t-shirt expresses his desire to do away with homework and is implicitly calling on his classmates to help him to achieve that.

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I'm down with that explanation. Odd, though, how "Down with <object>" means exactly what you say, but "I'm down with <object>" actually means "I'm in agreement with that." Yet, had I said "I'm down on that..." instead of "I'm down with that...", that would mean I'm expressing disagreement. –  J.R. Aug 4 '12 at 10:58
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The phrase does have variant and disparate meanings. –  Pantalones Aug 4 '12 at 13:03
    
@J.R. "I'm down with…" is declarative, while "Down with…" is imperative, so they're semantically and structurally very different. The former is also using a very idiomatic, slag meaning of "down", while the latter is using a less idiomatic (transparent, simple metaphor) meaning of "down". –  SevenSidedDie Aug 4 '12 at 16:34

In addition to the other answers, I believe this is a more specific reference to the education organization called "Up With People".

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There is a similar phrase in French, à bas, that is translated down with and I believe is used to mean the same as discussed by other answers - do away with.

I am not sure when down with was first used in the U.S., but MW claims the first documented usage of à bas in French is 1897.

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