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What I am particularly interested in is the phrasal verb stand down.

According to Oxford Online Dictionary, it means:

Relax or cause to relax after a state of readiness:

However, whenever I hear this phrasal verb in movies or TV shows, it sounds more like "do not engage (do not aim/do not shoot)" or "lower your guns from the target".

Question: I am interested in knowing about its origin and etymology. What exactly does stand down mean? Any object of the verb stand is omitted or something else?

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    It's jargon, probably from the military, originally, and picked up by the police. I've no clue as to the derivation, though.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 17:34
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    word-detective article is the first result when you google "stand down origin". and Etymonline is the fifth result.
    – ermanen
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 17:42
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    OED has the earliest usage from 1916: "I. Gurney Let. 25 Oct. in PN Review 29 (1982) 32/1 Our last orders were as follows.—From Stand to 5.30. Stand Down, clean rifles... Stand to 5–5.30. Stand Down."
    – ermanen
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 17:44
  • Probably the 'down' is related to that of 'down time' (not 'on alert'), in an up-is-active/alert metaphor. Cf 'Stand up for your rights!' / 'Lay down your weapons'. Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 18:13

3 Answers 3

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According to the following source the origin is from military jargon and its first usage dates back to the beginning of the 20th century.

Stand down:

  • is one of several specifically military uses of “stand” that include “to stand to one’s arms,” meaning “to maintain one’s position in the face of an attack” (the source of the idiom “to stick to your guns,” meaning “to not give in” in an argument, etc.), as well as “to stand to arms,” meaning to assume combat readiness and prepare for action.

  • “To stand down” is the opposite of “to stand to arms,” and means to go off duty or relax from a state of readiness (“‘Stand-down’ was the corresponding order at the end of the Danger Period, used in like manner as an expression for a definite point of time,” 1925). The “down” in “stand down” doesn’t mean literally taking a seat, any more than the command “at ease” means to lounge on the nearest couch, but the contrast is to “on duty” status and alert readiness.

  • “Stand down” first appeared in print in 1919, just after World War I, so we can assume that the term originated in that conflict.

The Word Detective

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Etymonline says:

To stand down is from 1680s, originally of witnesses in court; in the military sense of "come off duty" it is first recorded 1916.

This makes sense to me- a witness would "take the stand" and when they finish they would "stand down".

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In a non-military context, "stand down" is commonly used to mean leave a position, but not necessarily permanently (with the degree of permanence being dependent on the context):

  • John Smith will stand down as CEO until the court case is over.
  • Jim Jones has decided to stand down as team captain because of his poor form.

And it can also be used transitively:

  • BHP-Billiton may stand down 800 workers at the mine until export prices improve.

And as a hyphenated noun term:

  • The stand-down at BHP-Billiton will start in the new year.

I assume these newer meanings have evolved from the original military one.

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  • Yes, I first encountered the phrase in the context of the song "Stand Down Margaret" by the British ska band The Beat in 1980. I don't think the band wanted her to depart only temporarily, however.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 9:47

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