lockdown, lockup

All Friday, as Boston and surrounding towns and cities were under a “shelter in place” order, everyone on the news kept referring to it as a lockdown, or as being on lockdown.

Lockdown? As though Boston were some kind of lockup?

I used to live in Boston (or actually in Medford and then Somerville, but part of the same melted-together urbanity), and I can tell you it’s not a prison, even if it does have many institutions (among which a striking number of good universities and colleges). So it’s interesting to see a term applied there that came into being to refer to prisoners being confined to cells, as though citizens were at liberty only at discretion of their warders, the police.

But, then, what other term works? Curfew communicates an overnight confinement (and comes from French couvre-feu, ‘cover fire’). Stay-inside orders or similar terms – or the official shelter in place – may be descriptive, but lockdown simply has an impact the others lack. Lock: a word that conveys a constrained freezing of movement, and in sound moves from a flowing liquid to the hardest stop we have, /k/. It’s like a river locked up with ice. Down: in place, fixed. You can easily see a bolt sliding down to fix a door firmly in place, and the occupant of a cell (or house) being held confined like a butterfly with a cup clapped down over it.

And there lies the difference between lockdown and lockup (and their associated verbs lock down and lock up). What’s up? A hand help up to stop you. A wall thrown up in front of your face. The stoppage of motion: we run up to an obstacle and end up at a place when our time is up. We fill up a tank, of course, and we look up a word in the dictionary. Up in these senses conveys motion that culminates or is blocked (like a sink stopped up or your nose stuffed up) or simply unable to continue (because full, like a container – your nose stuffed up again). It can be a containment, as with something walled up. It can even be a constrainment that might yet be broken free of, as if you’re tied up today but your schedule is free tomorrow. So when you are locked up, you are in a containment or cessation of motion, a point of at least temporary culmination. Like how the sound in your mouth is abruptly contained with the /p/ in up. (Which is not to say that the sound is responsible for the meaning.)

And what’s down? Not something stopped in motion, but something fixed at a point, anchored. Held down, nailed down, tied down. Down actually has a few different isotopes: it can communicate a motion in direction without specific endpoint (settle down), or a motion that moves downward and comes to a fixed point (set down, tie down), or – in adjectives made with past participles – fixity in a place without specific reference to prior motion. If you are cooped up you may still be able to move within confines, but if you are pinned down you can’t move at all. Interestingly, the word down starts with a stop /d/ and then fades off with a nasal /n/ – not quite so iconic – but it does have that closing-in diphtong in the middle.

In short, the difference between up and down in these words is that up is like putting your hands forward and up, palms outward, as against a wall, and down is like driving your index finger downward to a stopping point. Locked up: nope, stop, not getting out, kept in. Locked down: staying put, going nowhere. Up is to stop as down is to done, perhaps.

Well, anyway, Bostonians were kept in but they have now been let out; they were confined but now they are free again. The suspect was hiding in a boat, but no one knew that; because he could have been anywhere, everyone in Boston was in the same boat. Once the police got a lock on his location, everyone else could unlock: his number was up, and they could let their guards down.

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3 responses to “lockdown, lockup

  1. I once had a student from India who was bewildered by the variety of expressions in English that use “up” with no consistency in meaning. She mentioned growing up, sitting up, making up, shutting up, among others.

    • Some certainly have to do with direction, but a lot have to do with completion, or coming to a culmination of a course of motion. Grow up is both; so is, to some extent, sit up, though more plainly directional; make up can be to bring to a full readiness or to bring into realization; shut up can be to bring speech to a stop or to completely close something up; and so on. There are always exceptions, but there’s a lot in common, actually.

  2. English is my second language and I sincerely appreciate and enjoy your word tasting notes. They show the complexity and richness of the language that often are absent in everyday conversations. Thank you!

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