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A recent EL&U question (What does “and counting” in “Bits of plastic in oceans: 5.25 trillion and counting” mean?) led to a discussion of counting up versus counting down. In the course of that discussion, a commenter observed that the default direction for counting is up (toward larger numbers) rather than down toward zero. The fact that we have the word countdown in English but not the word countup offers some support for this view, since you wouldn't expect speakers to specify a direction that was accepted as and assumed to be the normal one.

Here is the entry for countdown in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003):

countdown n (ca. 1952) : an audible backward counting in fixed units (as seconds) from an arbitrary starting number to mark the time remaining before an event; also : preparations carried out for such an event.

The two most familiar settings for countdowns, at least in the United States, are rocket, missile, or spaceship launches (where the countdown is to the moment of ignition of the rocket fuel and the launch of the missile or spacecraft) and sporting events such as basketball, hockey, and football that are normally played within a fixed allotment of "live" time (where the countdown is to the end of one of the periods of the game or [more often] to the end of the game itself).

The Online Etymology Dictionary has this:

countdown (n.) 1953, American English, in early use especially of launches of rockets or missiles, from count (v.) + down.

This entry suggests that aeronautics/rocketry was an "especially" frequent setting for early use of countdown, but it doesn't indicate that it was the first setting, nor does it give any idea as to when countdown came into use at sporting events.

I have three questions:

  1. In what context did countdown originate—aeronautics/rocketry, sports, or something else?

  2. When did the term cross over from its original setting (presumably either aeronautics/rocketry or sports) to the other setting where it became especially common?

  3. Can anyone improve on "circa 1952" (MW) or "1953" (etymonline) as the first occurrence date of this word?

  • Not sure about the first one, but here's a solid analysis of the last one (final countdown) – Minnow Dec 11 '14 at 22:16
  • From Ngran it appears that countdown was first used for rockets and missiles . books.google.com/ngrams/… – user66974 Dec 11 '14 at 22:28
  • Interestingly, one of the earliest instances in Google Books results is from IRE Transactions on Broadcast Transmission Systems (1955), in the context of television broadcasting: "Clock with sweep secondhand started at end of identification slate and counting down from 15 seconds before program is to start. 3. At countdown 4, picture is faded to black. 4. At countdown Zero, program starts." – Sven Yargs Dec 11 '14 at 22:35
  • And Hathi Trust finds multiple matches for countdown in a 1950 book titled Questions and Answers in Television Engineering. That's a surprise. – Sven Yargs Dec 11 '14 at 22:42
  • From Wikipedia: An early use of a countdown once signaled the start of a Cambridge University rowing race. The first known association with rockets was in the 1929 German science fiction movie Die Frau im Mond (English: Woman in the Moon) written by Thea von Harbou and directed by Fritz Lang in an attempt to increase the drama of the launch sequence of the story's lunar-bound rocket. – user66974 Dec 11 '14 at 22:44
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1. In what context did countdown originate—aeronautics/rocketry, sports, or something else?

The two earliest quotations in the OED are from 1953:

1953 News (Birmingham, Alabama) 4 June 1/6 Observers on the mountain were able to hear the count-down on the drop from the control tower.

1953 Monsanto Mag. (U.S.) July 4 Time on the range is expressed in minutes before a missile is to be fired. This is called a ‘count down’.

Both of these refer to atomic bomb test held in continental US.

This 4th June 1953 AP report in the Chicago Tribune -- "Biggest A-Bomb- Flashes 2 ½ Min. Of Satanic Fury" -- covers the same event:

By short wave radio from the control tower to an AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] station on the mountain, reporters were able to hear the count-down after the bomb was released.

The word may have originated in the 1950s, but the act of counting down to zero wasn't new to the Nevada tests. (Here's an example from 1951, but there'll be older ones.)

The military had been counting down to zero since at least the first world war, made clear by the term zero hour (the scheduled start time of a military operation), which dates from 1915, and zero day from 1929 (the scheduled start day of a military operation). Zero hour was used during the 1950s for the Nevada tests.

A benefit of counting down to zero is it leaves no ambiguity. If doesn't matter how long the countdown is -- say, 100 seconds, 20 seconds or 10 seconds -- you know action will be taken at zero. If you counting up, you need to also agree in advance at what number action should be taken.

The military also used terms D-Day, H-Hour and T-Time to refer to the start time. Days, hours and seconds before the start can be referred to as D-1 (say "dee minus one" for one day before, H-2 ("aitch minus two") for two hours before, and T-20 ("tee minus twenty") for 20 seconds before. Times after the start are referred to with pluses.

These also use zero as the start time, but it can be seen as a sequential timeline where the zero has been shifted to the time of action. (Also noteworthy, ground zero for the point below an exploding (atomic) bomb.)


2. When did the term cross over from its original setting (presumably either aeronautics/rocketry or sports) to the other setting where it became especially common?

The term transferred form military use to more widespread use after being used in reporting of the 1950s atomic bomb tests. It further became more well-known during the space-rocket launches of the late-1950s and NASA's Apollo moon launches during the 1960s.


3. Can anyone improve on "circa 1952" (MW) or "1953" (etymonline) as the first occurrence date of this word?

I found no print evidence earlier than the June 1953 bomb launches, although it's likely the military were using the term before this time.

  • Thanks, Hugo. What do you make of the use of countdown in Questions and Answers in Television Engineering (1950)? There are multiple occurrences of the word, usually in connection with"countdown circuit" and "countdown pulse," but also with "60-cycle countdown" and once in this phrase: "the 60-cycle pulse from the countdown will occur sooner." Is there any connection to areospace adoption of "countdown" here, or is the word choice just a coincidence? – Sven Yargs Dec 13 '14 at 16:54
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    @SvenYargs: I saw some similar early ones in electronics. I think it's coincidental as I couldn't see any relation to the sense in question, or any connection to the military operational use. The military sense has a clear path to popularity: both atomic and space rocket launches were widely reported via the media. – Hugo Dec 13 '14 at 18:14
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I can't vouch for the accuracy of Google Books dates, but The Kirkus Service - Volume 2 appears to have been published in 1948, and it contains an entry for...

Countdown to Christmas

Plus I found this in a Greek "glossary" apparently from 1854...

[Untranscribable Greek word] - To count down to, to number as far as, to enumerate, to reckon to

  • Unfortunately How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head (one of the titles cited in the excerpt from Kirkus Service in your link) has a copyright date of 1971, so I suspect that Google Books has once again provided the wrong date. Also, the "Our History" page at Kirkus dates the name "Kirkus Service" to 1967. Google Books sometimes drives me crazy. – Sven Yargs Dec 12 '14 at 0:01
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    @Sven: Ah well. It's interesting to see that counting down the days didn't take off until the late 70s - but is now "common as muck", so to speak. In Victorian times they'd count off the days [until some awaited date/event] – FumbleFingers Dec 12 '14 at 1:23
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    @FumbleFingers It's probably due to the influence of the space program. People became familiar with rocket launch countdowns, and extended it to other contexts, like the countdown before midnight on New Year's Eve. – Barmar Dec 12 '14 at 1:59

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