In several books that mention GUI, keyboard, or mouse buttons (e.g. the book Programming Windows by Charles Petzold), the authors refer to the state of a pressed button as depressed. Why is this term used instead of the word pressed, which has a simple and intuitive meaning?

Some alternative terms that could be a better fit are pushed, clicked, or activated. As someone who is not a native-English speaker, the term depressed is unintuitive to me because it resembles the opposite meaning: not pressed.

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    Because buttons become very sad when you press them. – JSBձոգչ Apr 14 '11 at 19:18
  • @JSBᾶngs Actually, people feel 'pressed down' when they are said to be depressed. – Kris Feb 18 '12 at 11:19
  • Yeah, wouldn't you be depressed if people were constantly pounding on you? – Hot Licks May 23 '15 at 20:19
  • Wow. 5 answers already and nobody's mentioned metaphor. The emotional sense is part of the Up/Down complex. The physical pressing down is the basic sense; emotions are metaphorical. – John Lawler May 23 '15 at 20:29

From TheFreeDictionary.com:

depression 1. a. The act of depressing. b. The condition of being depressed.

And the verb:

depress 4. to press or push down

So ... depressed works just fine for the state of a button being pushed in.

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    So to elaborate for the OP, "Press" means to push, regardless of direction. "Depress" specifically means to push DOWN. – Kevin Apr 14 '11 at 20:04
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    It's interesting to me because "deselect" is the opposite of "select", so I've assumed that "depress" was used in the same way. Also, I'm terrified that this question was moved to this website. Spelling mistakes.. gulp – Andrej Mitrović Apr 14 '11 at 20:31
  • if you needed the "opposite of press" you could, in some cases, write de-press. (Think of some sort of metal-working factory.) BTW the spirit of your question - the fact that "de-" can mean more than one thing -- so what? English is a total mess! You can give literally thousands of examples of words that "should mean" something else, in a humorous way. – Fattie Jul 23 '14 at 8:12
  • @Kevin So what's the word for "push UP"? – endolith Nov 21 '14 at 19:10
  • @endolith Press-up - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Push-up – Kevin Nov 21 '14 at 19:26

"De" is also used as a prefix meaning "down to the bottom" or "away", which can also lead to "completely", as in the examples here: denude, denigrate.

It may count as an auto-antonym, also called contronym. But I can't think of an example of un-pressing something.

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    On a manual typewriter, pressing Caps Lock both physically pressed down the Shift button and kept it depressed. So if you wanted to take caps off, you had to un-press the Shift button (usually by pressing Caps Lock again, thus making the Shift button undepressed). Maybe that's why it's all electric these days. – Tim Lymington May 14 '11 at 23:17

Not sure, but my guess is that it's because technical writers are trying to make a distinction between the act of pressing something and the state of something being down/pressed/depressed.

depress and press are pretty much exact synonyms, but almost no one ever uses the term "depress" to describe the act of pressing something. It's correct, but the usage is rare. It's usually used to refer to the state of something. The word pressed is used both ways. But technical writers exploit the rarity of the usage of "depressed" to emphasize the distinction between between the state-word and the action-word.


He pressed the button, and it was pressed.

Was the button actually in a down-state after it was pressed, or is the sentence just saying the same thing twice, that he attempted to press it?

He pressed the button, and it was depressed.

Okay, got it, his attempt to press the button was successful, and it left the button in a down-state.

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  • In response to "but almost no one ever uses the term 'depress' to describe the act of pressing something" - lots of car manuals, and instructions online, tell you to "depress the brake" when starting the car. So that is specifically telling you to take the action of pressing the brake pedal. It's even worse when they describe the clutch for a manual car or motorcycle. When you press the clutch pedal, that disengages the clutch (specifically the clutch plate). You engage the clutch pedal to disengage the clutch. So when it says "depress the clutch" you press the clutch to un-press the clutch – user3685427 Apr 30 '19 at 1:49

Depressed can also mean the the button is in a lowered state, which is the result of pressing it.

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To "press" a button often implicitly means to push it down and then release it. If I instruct you to "press" the A key on your keyboard, you'll probably push it down and then let go.

To "depress" a button unambiguously refers only to the act of pushing it down.

Consequently, if you need to describe a series of actions involving buttons in unusually intricate detail, it can be useful to use "depress". For instance, it could be problematic I ask you to:

  1. Press the A button, then
  2. Right-click, then
  3. Release the A button

because you may have assumed you were meant to release the A button in step 1, and only realised your mistake when you got to step 3. On the other hand, if I say:

  1. Depress the A button, then
  2. Right-click, then
  3. Release the A button

then the ambiguity in step 1 is eliminated. This makes the word "depress" useful when talking about the act of depressing a button.

There's less ambiguity between the states of being "pressed" or "depressed" than there is between the acts; it's clear that both mean the same thing as long as it's clear that the word is being used to refer to a state. However, there are still at least a couple of reasons that a writer might still sometimes prefer to use "depressed" to refer to the state of a button being held down.

One such reason is to retain consistency with how they refer to the act of pushing down a button, for which they may elsewhere use the word "depress".

Another reason is to reduce ambiguity with the act of pressing the button. Note that the grammar of a sentence will often not convey whether the word "pressed" refers to an act or a state. For instance, consider a sentence like:

The green LED should remain on as long as the button is depressed.

Here, the most natural interpretation is that "depressed" refers to a state; in other words, that as long as I continue to hold down the button, the LED should remain on. But if I said:

The green LED should remain on as long as the button is pressed.

then a possible alternative interpretation becomes more salient, where "pressed" refers to an act; that is, that as long as I perform the act of pressing the button, then the LED should thereafter remain on (even if I release the button).

Thus, if the former meaning is intended, using "depressed" instead of "pressed" here is one way to avoid confusing the reader. (There are, of course, plenty of others; a phrase like "is held down" or "remains pressed" would serve the same purpose as "is depressed" here. But such is the nature of English; there are usually several different ways to say anything.)

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There are two types of mechanically activated switches in the electronic and electrical industry. Type A is where the switch remains stucked indefinitely at a lower position even after releasing your fingers from it and type B is a push( downwards of course)- to -on type where the switch bounces back( upwards of course) to its original position after the finger is released. So you depress or unpress the "switch" for type A and you press or release a type B "switch".Both actions have the same purpose ; to turn on or activate something. Also we actually seldom use the words press or depress for a switch from my job experience We flick ,push up/ down or flip a switch. In my job as a wireman we push or depress a push button.Wong could you please depress the green pushbutton when I count to three?. Ok do you want me to flip / flick / turn on the 60 amps MCB switch ?.For buttons( pushbuttons): press or push( usually to turn on only),depress( turn on only),unpress or release( to deactivate or turn off only) depending whether type A or B. For switches : turn on or off, flip up/ down, flick down/ up, push up/ down. Just turn that damn thing on already!.

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    Welcome to ELU. This does not appear to answer the question, which is about the linguistic/semantic difference between the participles pressed and depressed. It's not about different types of switches. – Andrew Leach May 23 '15 at 19:04

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