Sit-in as a noun, is used to refer to forms of strikes or protests. This connotation appears to have originated especially from the late '30s, when it was used to refer also to more neutral context like music sessions for instance according to Etymonline. Sit in as a phrasal verb, is still used in neutral contexts : to sit in at a bridge game; to sit in for the band's regular pianist.


  • 1936, in reference to session musicians; 1937, in reference to union action; 1941, in reference to student protests. From the verbal phrase; see sit (v.) + in (adv.). To sit in is attested from 1868 in the sense "attend, be present;" from 1919 specifically as "attend as an observer."
  • Has the noun "sit-in" definitely lost its neutral usage? Is it used only to refer to some kind of organized protests nowadays? or are there, possibly rare, exceptions?
  • 2
    You are confusing us. The reference you quote mashes together the verb and noun. AFAIK, the noun never was "neutral".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 13:10
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    @HotLicks - I think you misunderstood the question.
    – user66974
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 14:59
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    @Josh The etymonline.com reference doesn't give any examples of the first usage. Can you find some?
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 21:26
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    @Barmar - the fact is that sit in as a phrasal verb has a more neutral usage compared to sit-in.
    – user66974
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 21:39
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    @Barman eventbrite.com/e/sunday-sit-in-jam-session-tickets-31832267168. I believe the verb sitting in was backformed from this. Also nicely defined here - jazzbackstory.blogspot.com/2013/03/…
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 17:56

2 Answers 2


I don't think that sit-in as a noun is used any longer as a neutral term, probably because people immediately think of civil disobedience sit-ins by protesters (or perhaps sit-in strikes by workers) when they hear the word.

The social 'sit-in'

Nevertheless, the term has come up more than once in the past in connection with neutral, benign, and even jolly contexts. For example, from "What Has the United States to Do with the Morocco Conference?" in the Albuquerque [New Mexico] Evening Citizen (January 15, 1906):

The croak is already heard in the land that "the administration is about to violate the American policy of a century against entangling alliances." The croak is premature. Uncle Sam may be just taking a sit-in for observation purposes. And who knows but that the American delegation may be just the weight which will hold down the lid on the ever boiling pot of war across the Atlantic?

Here, sit-in seems to mean nothing more specific than "a seat at the table [at the conference]." A similar meaning is at work in "Ladies in the Game," in the [Washington, D.C.] Evening Star (August 3, 1907):

I was yanked, captured, herded and corralled into a game with six women people last night. Only one other he-person in the sit-in beside myself, and the last I saw of him, after the break-up of the game, he was headed for the crick licketty-split, and I must remember to tell 'em to go down there with the grappling irons pretty soon.

The meaning here is essentially "game of cards at a table" And in "Elysium Sans Money: What Palisades Park Offers Free to the Vacation Seeker," in the New York Daily Tribune (July 26, 1908):

A few of the boys can't get over the habit of working daytime, so they get up at 5 a. m., cook and eat breakfast, paddle across the river in a canoe and take the subway to their offices downtown, which they reach by 8 o'clock. They get back early enough for an evening swim and a sit-in around the big communistic campfire, where friends and strangers tell stories and make the rocks echo with 'Marching Through Georgia' and other songs.

And here, clearly, the meaning is "ring of people seated around a campfire."

From Goodwin's Weekly [Salt Lake City, Utah] (April 24, 1915):

Mr. and Mrs. Paul Galligher of Omaha, arrived here Monday and were the guests at the home of the W. S. McCornicks the early part of the week. Mr Galli[g]her is well known here, a relative of the McCornicks and McCaskells, and he and his charming little bride were welcomed by the smart set and entertained at a number of affairs during their stay. They are now in California, but will return here on their way home. They were the guests of honor at a "sit-in" for twenty at the Alta club preceding the subscription dance and on Tuesday evening the same friends motored to the country home of the J. Frank Judges where they, with Mr. and Mrs. Lewis B. McCornick, amused their guests with a delightfully informal dance and supper.

The sense of "sit-in" here seems to be "seated dinner for invited guests in a private room."

A later instance uses the term "'sit-in' privilege" to mean something equivalent to "the right to a seat [at a sporting event]." From "Heavyweight Champ Defends Title in Go at Benton Harbor," in the Los Angles [California] Herald (September 6, 1920):

The throng didn't come so much with the idea that it was going to be a nip and tuck battle. Rather the consensus of the fighting public is that Dempsey would score a triumph. They hoped he would end it by wielding one or the other of his far-famed swats.

The prospect of seeking how he does it prompted the crowd to pay from $5.50 to $33 for the "sit-in" privileges.

Emergence of the political/economic 'sit-in'

The "political/economic action" sense of sit-in seems to have arisen during the 1930s, as 1006a's answer (above) suggests. National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, Information Service, volume 16 (February 6, 1937) [combined snippets] addresses "sit-in [or sit-down] strike" as an new strike technique:

The Ethics of the Sit-in Strike

The sit-in strike is a new technique in that it involves maintaining possession of the company's property and holding it against all efforts of the legal owners to possess and operate their plants. It has been contended that the legality of this procedure has yet to be finally determined. However that may be, that it is contrary to all our accepted principles of law and equity would seem to be too plain for argument.

Likewise an issue of Social Work Today (May 1937) provides articles on a series of sit-in strikes in that sector ("Hospital Sit-In," "Detroit Sits Down to Work," "The Blind Sit Down," and "Sit-In for More Relief") under the umbrella heading "The Sit-In Hits Social Work."


Except for a brief flurry of newspaper instances in the period 1906–1907, the use of sit-in to mean participation in a social gathering or entertainment is very rare in book and periodical databases. I doubt that it had any influence on the emergence of the "political/economic action" sense of the term, though a connection isn't impossible.

A bit of negative evidence on this point comes in the form of Mitford Mathews, A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (1951), which has no entry for sit-in, although it does have one for sit-down strike. I take this as an indication that the "social gathering" sense of sit-in was not in general use in 1951 and that the predominant term for the political action, by that time, was sit-down strike rather than sit-in strike. The resurrection of sit-in as a term for political action is undoubtedly due to the lunch-counter civil disobedience of the period 1955–1961 by activists for racial desegregation, as Wikipedia's article on Sit-in details.

In any case, the political sense of sit-in now dominates the normal use and understanding of the term to the exclusion of the older social sense. This is evident from the entry for the term in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003):

sit-in (1937) 1 : SIT-DOWN [in the sense of "a cessation of work by employees while maintaining continuous occupation of their place of employment as a protest and means toward forcing compliance with demands"] 2 a : an act of occupying seats in a racially segregated establishment in organized protest against discrimination b : an act of sitting in the seats or in the floor of an establishment as a means of organized protest

In Merriam-Webster's presentation of modern-day usage of sit-in, there are no neutrals there.


TL;DR: The noun "sit-in" has not "lost its neutral usage" as it probably was never commonly used in "neutral" (non-protest) contexts.

A Google Books search turns up only a very few examples of the phrases "a sit[-]in" and "the sit[-]in" prior to 1950, and of these all actual English hits (as opposed to optical character recognition errors and Latin texts) are either part of a different phrase (e.g. Bill is back on a sit in Schenectedy) or else refer to protests. For example:

The sit-in hits social work: hospital workers in Brooklyn, mothers in Detroit, blind in Pittsburgh, unemployed in New York, adopt the sit-in method. (Public Affairs Information Service Bulletin, V.23, 1937. Snippet-view.)

One day of the sit-in strike fell on pay day (testimony from Investigation of Un-American Propaganda Activities in the United States hearings, 1938. Snippet view.)

Likewise, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the adjective and noun only in terms of "a strike or demonstration", with attestations for this sense beginning in 1937.

orig. U.S.
A. adj.
Of a strike, demonstration, etc.: in which persons occupy a work place, public building, etc., esp. in protest against alleged activities there. Of a person: participating in such a strike or demonstration. Also, of or pertaining to such a strike or demonstration.
B. n.
1. A sit-in strike or demonstration.
2. A participant in a sit-in strike or demonstration. U.S.

("sit-in, adj. and n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016.)

Absence of evidence isn't necessarily evidence of absence, but I think in this case it's quite likely that the (unquoted) Etymonline example of the noun used for a non-protest jam session was an aberrant (or perhaps joking) usage, even then. All evidence suggests that the noun sit-in in common usage has always meant a protest of some sort.


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