Generally when a machine is working we refer to it as "up" and when it's not we say the machine is "down." What is the origin of this?

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    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 29, 2017 at 20:57

9 Answers 9


The machine is up/down is an instantiation of a Metaphor Theme.

English speakers (like all humans) are oriented vertically with respect to a gravitational field, so the UP/DOWN dimension is significant, and English uses it in a variety of metaphor themes.

These themes include:

  • UP is MORE (DOWN is LESS):
    The prices are rising/falling.
    The stock market’s moving up/crashing.
    Turn the volume up/down.

  • UP is HAPPY (DOWN is SAD):
    He’s depressed.
    feeling up/down
    What a downer!

    upper/lower classes
    the highest levels

    The computer is up/down.
    Are you up for some handball?
    Rise to the occasion.

    higher/lower animals
    He fell down on the midterm.
    a rise/fall in performance
    aim high

    He’s got his head in the clouds.
    He’s got his feet on the ground.
    Come back to earth.
    higher mathematics
    high-level cognitive functions
    low-level details
    new heights of abstraction
    down-to-earth solution

All of these themes are coherent; that is, we tend to think of them in the same ways (e.g, LESS, SAD, WEAK, PASSIVE, and WORSE are all negative evaluations, and vice versa.)

  • 10
    I think you're pushing it to say that "concrete" is considered worse than "abstract" in the same sense that "active" is considered worse than "passive"; but otherwise this makes great sense. Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 20:15
  • 27
    Are you up for some handball? has the exact same meaning as Are you down for some handball? (at least in New England dialects of AmE) so that is perhaps not a good example.
    – asgallant
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 22:00
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    Like I said, they're coherent. Down with Action means 'written down on the (metaphorical) list of those who are to do Action; lists are written and writing is downward-directed. Same thing with on the train meaning in the train because trains have metaphoric passenger lists. We rarely notice potential conflicts between metaphors like drink up/drink down because they all make sense in the metaphoric context, and we control the metaphoric contexts chosen. Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 22:22
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    I disagree with this answer. I think the simple explanation is that living and awake things tend to be up (standing up), dead or sleeping things are down, i.e. (lying down). The metaphor here is that the machine is alive/awake, or dead/sleeping.
    – crobar
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 9:05
  • 4
    @crobar: Living and awake humans are vertical, but dead or sleeping ones are horizontal. "Things" instead of humans, not so much. Humans are the prototype animal, and also the prototype machine. As I said, they're all coherent themes, and like all metaphors they're projections of human body and actions onto non-human things and events. Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 23:09

To shut down has been used to describe machines for a long time, per OED:

Mech. To stop or switch off (a device or machine, esp. an engine); to cause to stop working or running. Also absol.

This use is attested as early as 1895:

1895 When shutting down a machine, the load should first be gradually reduced..by easing down the engine.

  • G. W. Lummis-Paterson · Management of Dynamos · 1895.

Why shut down? Probably because of earlier meanings related to shutting down a factory or plant, attested in 1877, which itself seems to derive from the idea of "shutting the doors" of a facility. Shut meaning to close and lock is much older, and shut down implies closing and bolting something to a fixed position, which in machinery is generally the off position.

Another explanation comes from the figurative meaning of up and down with regard to whether something is being powered. This figurative sense seems to apply in an OED definition for "up" that also dates back quite far:

Increased in power, force, strength, or vigour; actually blowing; ready for action. Also (in Computing), in working condition. Frequently in phr. up and running.

In an attestation from 1570, the term referred to wind, a precursor to the figurative use with reference to power described above.

The winde was somwhat vp, and it caused the fire to be ye fiercer.

  • John Foxe · The first volume of the ecclesiasticall history contaynyng the actes and monumentes of thynges passed..in this realme · Rev. ed, 1570 (2 vols.).

References to wind appeared to be common with this figurative sense, until a reference to a steamboat in 1848:

A Government steamer..lay in the river, with steam up.

  • J. Mitchel · Jail Journal · 1848.

Finally, an attestation is given that refers directly to computers, offered in 1978, though this is by no means the earliest date in which people would have referred to computers that are on as "up.":

British Steel's giant private packet-switched network is up—and running successfully.

  • Computing · 1976

So to answer the question directly, the terms seem to go back quite far to figurative meanings related to up, down, shut down, etc. that were used to describe mechanical conditions before computers but also applied as computers became a prevalent technology.

  • 1
    Sure, it's just a natural extension of other uses of up and down but the OED seems arbitrary in assigning this usage to the definition (Increased in power, force, strength, or vigour; actually blowing; ready for action) it does. It could as well say it's an extension of several of the meanings that precede this one especially those referring to the human (= human body = human machine). I think the OED has stuck the usage of the OP in a category that aligns with it but doesn't necessarily originate from it. Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 14:44
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    "Up and running" is a phrase in its own right so the fact that it is applied to a network doesn't seem significant. Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 19:27
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    (WRT steam up) I find it intriguing that we still actively use terms 150+ years later that have zero relevance to the actual action -- chiefly, in computer engineering we talk about spinning up (creating/instantiating) a virtual machine. There is literally no physical "spinning" action that occurs, but we say it without thinking twice.
    – tonysdg
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 2:33
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    I always thought that "spinning up" a VM originated from bringing idle hard drives into service. They literally do spin up. Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 7:29
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    @tonysdg FWIW, steam locomotives ran well into the 20th century. It appears that the last steam locomotive to be retired from everyday, regular service in the US was retired in the 1970s, so the disappearance of actual steam machines from everyday life was much more recent than 150 years.
    – Dr. Funk
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 14:32

The word down has been used to describe a state of disablement or non-operation for many centuries before computers, e.g. "Man down", or "He was struck down by his enemy."

Up is then the natural opposite.

But I couldn't say when the word up was first used as the opposite of this sense of down.

  • Similarly, even machinery can succumb to gravity, drooping or even collapsing when it loses power.
    – talrnu
    Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 0:00

It might have to do with start up and shut down, as things done to said computers, and to other machines before them:

ngrams: start up the machine,shut down the machine,start up the computer,shut down the computer

How to test this hypothesis, I'm not sure.

  • 4
    That just rephrases the question though. Why is it start up and shut down rather than start left and shut purple?
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 10:18
  • 1
    > start-up (n.) also startup, 1550s, "upstart," from verbal phrase (attested from c. 1200 in sense "rise up;" 1590s as "come suddenly into being"); see start (v.) + up (adv.). Meaning "action of starting up" is from 1845. See start (v.) + up (adv.). – etymonline.com
    – Mazura
    Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 1:14
  • 1
    > shutdown (n.) also shut-down, 1884, of factories, etc.; 1911 of machines; from shut (v.) + down (adv.). – etymonline.com
    – Mazura
    Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 1:14
  • @Mazura: ah, but those are the nouns.
    – Mathieu K.
    Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 4:14
  • @JonHanna: yes, that's fair. If I may make so bold, this line of inquiry may yet prove useful, provided (1) someone can find a way to test my hypothesis, (2) it is validated by such test(s), and (3) we are subsequently able to find the origin or development of (the verbs) start up or shut down. Basically, my guess is that start up and shut down are the next links in the chain as we explore the past.
    – Mathieu K.
    Commented Jul 29, 2017 at 15:57

The expression down used to refer to computers is from the mid '60. I think it is an extension of the meaning derived from the term "breakdown" which specifically of machinery, is from 1838:


  • Not working. A computer system is said to be down when it is not available to users. This can occur because it is broken (that is, it has crashed), or because it has been made temporarily unavailable to users so that routine servicing can be performed.


  • Computer crash sense is from 1965


To crash or shut down of computers is from the '70s according to The Dictionary of American Slang,

  • to fail suddenly : The spacecraft's No 1 computer ''crashed'' or shut down/ computers that can alert a mainframe owner to an impending computer ''crash'' (1970s+ Computer)
  • I think there might be an older military use.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 14:27
  • Excellent answer! Break down
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 17:55

I believe this to be related to the thing being alive/dead. Living and awake things tend to be up (standing up, sitting up), dead or sleeping things are down, i.e. (lying down). The metaphor here is that the machine is alive/awake, or dead/sleeping.


Might be a combination of actual design with a metaphorical context behind it.

For example, one possible reason is because of the way lots of switches are made (the kind where you flip it up to turn it on, and flip it down to turn it off):

  • a light switch (up is on, down is off)
  • switches on some computer boxes (think, desktop computers)
  • circuit breaker switches (down means it was tripped)

Combine that with the metaphorical idea in English that "down" is bad:

  • somebody who is sleeping or dead is down
  • somebody who is standing up might be healthy
  • when a soldier gets shot, it's a "man down"
  • when a helicopter gets blown up, "the bird is down"

So you come to the notion that if a machine is off, or not working, then it's "down".

  • 2
    Strangely, the default orientation of light switches in the UK was the other way up from the US. Harder to tell now switches tend to have rockers rather than toggles... or be touch switches or rotary. But it makes me suspect that light switch orientation is not the reason for power up / power down.
    – matt
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 13:37
  • @matt great point, I had no idea about that. Now I'm interested to find out why there's that difference...
    – Josh Beam
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 17:14
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    8 years after moving from UK to US, I still go for the wrong lightswitches alll the time, because of this: more often than not, I turn off the ceiling fan rather than turn on the light, because my brain will not accept that all the switches in my life have flipped. Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 18:55
  • 1
    Of course, in the case of an aircraft, the use of "down" for inoperative is hardly metaphorical. OTOH, we might wonder why an explosion is said to blow something up. Of course if something on the ground explodes, the debris that flies upward is more visible, and a greater cause for concern, than that which immediately hits the ground. But this argument does not seem to be valid when the target is already elevated. Commented Jul 23, 2017 at 16:53

We refer to computers and other machines as being up or down because the creators of these technologies used math and mathematical terminology which is rooted in real world observation. Using the Cartesian coordinate plane as an example, "up" on the "y axis" has a direct correlation to "up" on earth. One might think of the "x axis" as the ground and the "y axis" being oriented to our experience up and down on earth, which is a result of gravity. "Up" is positive and increasing in height. We go "higher" as we go "up". The word usage in question is in relation to increase in(higher) flow, volume, or intensity. Because electricity, being somewhat analogous to water, has been described with such language. Also, electricity is used for light and heat, which are also described as higher and lower as a result of mathematical value terminology.

Examples and further thoughts:

Turn up the heat, turn down the heat, turn up the light, turn down the light, could be referencing gas lamps, then came electric lights and dimmer switches. Also, the sun comes up and it gets brighter, it goes down and it gets darker. Power up, power down, speed up, slow down. An increase in amount is up and a decrease is down. Think higher and lower. High energy, low energy. High pressure, low pressure. Another example is turn up the sound, turn down the sound. Hurry up, calm down.

  • Pushing the pedal down makes the car go faster, which is more common than noting that some levers are the other way around, so how does a minority of cases serve as a meaningful example? Also, see my old question on up/down for the “cool” setting!
    – JDługosz
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 5:49
  • They are meaningful because they are specific examples in relation to electricity rather than simply a minority of cases of up/down usage. It is the increase in flow, volume, or intensity that I am pointing out. I am deleting the reference to vertical levers in my answer, it was off point. Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 2:15

The Americans refer to an up or down vote which I take to mean a yes or no vote but the only other decision a Congressman can make is to not vote at all. I assume probably wrongly that an up vote is a vote in the affirmative.

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