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"to throw a switch"

Posted by Smokey Stover on February 01, 2007

In Reply to: "To throw a switch" posted by ESC on February 01, 2007

: : What's the origin of the phrase "to throw a switch"? Why are switches "thrown"?

: Throwing a switch is moving a lever -- as in throwing a railroad switch. Maybe the motion reminded someone of throwing an object.


There's also the question: what else would you call it? As ESC notes, you use the phrase "throw the switch" most often when there is a lever to throw (that is, to cause to change position by force). In talking about other switches, of all sorts of shapes and sizes, we most often refer to that which is switched. Turn on the lamp, turn on the computer, turn on the juice, turn on the charm. If we say "turn the switch," which may be a non-rotary switch, we are directing one's attention to the switch itself, and I suspect that particular phrase is used either because we're not sure what the switched thing is called, or we wish the person at the switch to get a move on.

Like many English phrases, this one can be used figuratively, and then even more figuratively. Although it sounds most appropriate when there's a lever to move, it can be used effectively whenever there is a sifnificant magnitude of something controlled by the switch or the switching. "He threw the switch on 30,000 computers at once." You could even say, "He threw the switch on the hopes and dreams of 30,000 families."