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The expressions

to switch gears, to shift gears

are often (too often for my taste, but that is a different matter) used to announce a switch from one topic to another in an oral presentation (e.g., a scientific talk).

As far as vehicles are concerned, gears are switched to change speed, not direction. Hence, I would rather associate a "switch of gears" with a change in the speed of the presentation. Therefore, expressions such as "to change lanes" or "to change direction" seem to be more appropriate.

Does anyone have knowledge about the origin of the phrase? I could not find it in the respectable dictionaries, so I'm also not sure how common it really is.

(Another interesting point is that the phrase seems to be particularly popular in the United States, despite the dominance of automatic cars.)

  • If you switch gears from forward to reverse, you are changing directions. – bib Oct 17 '14 at 21:13
  • @bib Agreed, but that would mean going backwards through the talk, not changing topic. – painfulenglish Oct 17 '14 at 21:15
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    This is one of those idioms that just is -- it doesn't really bear close examination, but everyone (who was raised in the US, at least) knows what it means. – Hot Licks Oct 17 '14 at 21:20
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    Also shift gears with an equivalent meaning. – bib Oct 17 '14 at 23:54
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    I'd like to stress that as a Briton, I am not familiar with this expression, so it's likely that @Hot Licks is right about it being a 'chiefly US' expression. – Pharap Oct 18 '14 at 8:58
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When you change gears in a manual transmission, you are connecting an entirely different gear to the drive shaft to provide drive.

The idiom refers to this switch to a different, discrete mechanism, not the change of speed that can result. After all, it's quite possible to drive the same speed in different gears.

  • the dictionary.com definition uses the word "abrupt". Does that mean that the expression "Let's switch gears a little" (often used if the new topic is quite closely related) is contradictory? – painfulenglish Oct 18 '14 at 8:32
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    @painfulenglish - Is there ever an idiom that isn't used in a contradictory manner at some point? – Hot Licks Oct 18 '14 at 11:51
  • In a close-ratio transmission, neighboring gears don't differ that much in size, so the transition from one gear to another wouldn't be too abrupt. So you could stretch the idiom to "switching gears a little." – Gnawme Oct 18 '14 at 17:25
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I couldn't find anything on the etymology of the idiom, but in common parlance let's switch gears or 'change gears' usually means changing the subject. I think this has less to do with the way a transmission works (changing gears changes speed) and more to do with feeling the change of gears. You can really feel gears switch, especially with a bad driver!

When referring to changing the speed of the activity, the gear-idiom I encounter frequently is shift into high gear.

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    I think it is more like how gears in say, a clock work, how they spin against each other. A gear spinning clockwise will make an adjacent gear spin counter-clockwise. So switching gears would change direction entirely. – Gray Oct 17 '14 at 21:06
  • It should be noted that in older cars shifting gears was much more abrupt. The Model T had 2 forward speeds and one reverse, and later cars often only had 3 speeds (and forget about Synchromesh). – Hot Licks Oct 18 '14 at 11:53
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"As far as vehicles are concerned, gears are switched to change speed, not direction"

You are completely 100% correct.

People are dense, so you often hear this idiom used badly.

Of course, obviously, it should be used regarding "the speed of activity", "our pace" (whether slow down or speed up).

As you point out, people sometimes use it to mean "change topic." But then, millions of people use "brought" for "bought."

So,

(1) you should be aware that, yes, this is an idiom often used "poorly"

(2) {If you're asking "why" is that the case - stupidity, carelessness, illiteracy, social collapse.}

(3) There's no point being surprised by people using an idiom (or other term or word) in some "poor, incorrect" manner.

I'm shocked, shocked...

(4) the only correct and good use of the idiom, is what you imply (a change of speed).

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    The sense "to change direction/topic" is the only one I've ever heard, and goes back several decades at least -- probably 75-100 years. (You, however, are welcome to use it incorrectly if you wish, and you don't mind being misunderstood.) – Hot Licks Oct 18 '14 at 11:58

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