On “shutdowns” and “furloughs”

As the federal government faces a partial shutdown, employees will be placed on furlough. Etymology, though, never stops working, so let’s have a brief look at the origin of these terminating terms.

The original shutdowns referred to factories. (Pixabay)


The earliest shutdowns didn’t refer to governments but to factories. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds to shut down for “close a factory” in 1877, rising out of shut down, or “close by lowering or with a lid,” from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. 

The derived compound shut-down (now, common enough to have lost its hyphenation in shutdown) is evidenced by 1884. The OED actually records an instance of shut-down as early as 1857, but the sense isn’t clear. Shutdown extends to machines and devices in the early 1900s, a sense which we have today as we shut down our computers.

The simple verb shut goes back to the Old English scyttan, which specifically meant “to place a bolt in a door so as to fasten it.” It’s essentially an offshoot of shoot, a common Germanic verb.

And the adverbial down, incredibly, comes from the Old English dún, a “hill.” The Old English phrase of dúne meant “off the hill” or some other height, helping to explain the word’s incredible grammatical development.


In the US, a furlough specifically refers to suspending an employee from work for a period of time, usually without pay. This sense, and its associated verb, date back to at least 1867 in Maine’s one-time Bangor Daily Whig and Courier: “In all of the frequent ‘furloughs’…four-fifths of the unfortunates were soldiers…There were furloughed twenty-three printers, of whom nineteen were soldiers.”   

“Soldier” is a relevant term, as the original furlough was a leave of absence granted to a soldier for a particular period of time. The OED first documents furlough in 1631—as vorloffe, a borrowing from the Dutch verlof. The native English equivalent would be something like forleave. (Such as word did once exist in English, though in the sense of “to leave behind”). In this hypothetical forleave, the for- prefix (“completely”) survives in words like forgo or forbear while leave here carries an older sense of “permission.”

m ∫ r ∫

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