I found the phrase, “the message is the same every time, almost down to the word” in the article titled “As debates loom, Romney grasps for a closing argument” appearing in October 1st Time magazine.

The article reports that everywhere he goes lately, President Obama begins his stump speech with a story about a four-year-old boy named Samm. When Samm’s parents asked their son if he recognized the leader of the free world, he did. “What does Barack Obama do?” they asked Sammy, and Sammy replies: “He approves this message.” Then the writer follows:

“It’s a funny little ice-breaker. But it’s also a bridge to the message itself, which is that Obama wants to emphasize the middle class as the foundation of a strong economy, whereas Romney’s top-down economics benefits the rich. The message is the same every time, almost down to the word.”

From the context, I guessed “almost down to the word” is synonymous with “almost verbatim.” But I don’t find “down to the word” in any of Cambridge, Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionary as an idiom, though they register “down to earth,” “down to the wire,” “down to the present day,”and “down to there.”

On the other hand, Google Ngram registers “down to the word.” It shows usage of this phrase existed ever since before 1840, but its currency has been declining sharply after peaking during 1860 to 1920.

Is my understanding of “down to the word” as synonymous with “verbatim” right? Is “down to the word” an idiom, or a simple set of words. Is it still a popular phrase , or pretty old-fashioned expression because I can’t find it in any dictionaries I’ve checked?

  • 1
    "Down to the word" is sometimes said "word for word" as well. It means exactly what you surmised; verbatim is a good synonym. It's popular enough that I knew exactly what it meant in the title of your question, without needing to open the question for further elaboration. Seems like "word for word" is far more common than "down to the word," though.
    – J.R.
    Oct 3, 2012 at 9:10
  • @J.R.I revisited NGram to check incidence levels of “down to the word,” in comparison with “down to the letter,” “word by word,” and “verbatim”. The emergence of “verbatim” is higher in the range of 0.00012% (1900) and above 0.00016 (1960 and after) than “word by word” leveling off below 0.00002% all through 1840 to 2000. Both “down to the word” and “down to letter” make no show in the chart. If we base on NGram, it seems the currency of “down to the word” is almost negligible. Oct 3, 2012 at 11:28

1 Answer 1


"Down to the word" and other constructions like it (usually you hear "down to the letter") simply refers to the sameness of one thing with respect to another. What it asks you to do is to consider the detail mentioned, not whatever standard of sameness you may normally be tempted to apply.

Consider two identical twin girls: you could say both are human beings. You could also say they are both female, both are the same height, the same weight, the same age (give or take a few minutes), the same race, etc. But instead of these coarse comparisons, you could emphasize how alike they are by saying

They are alike down to their facial features.

The idea of "down" in this sense calls to mind going from broad comparatives down to finer and finer ones — ultimately to whatever level of granularity is specified. If one oral presentation, such as a speech, is like another "down to the word" it is identical at that level. If it is a written document (one student's homework is identical to another's, say) it could be said to be the same down to the letter, or down to the line breaks, or whatever metric you wish to apply.

Imagine viewing something from the top of a building. You would have to go down closer to view the details. That is the sense of it: zooming in to consider minute details.

  • I'm suprised no-one has mentioned what must be by far the most common collocation for this construction. Google Books estimates almost 60K hits for down to the last detail. Aug 6, 2016 at 10:52

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