8 Essential Shutdown Words You Need to Know

Words in the news can get awfully wonky when Washington is at the center of the story

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Ryan Barber, of Alexandria, Va., and his son Andrew, 2, sit on the grass with a hand painted furloughed sign on the east side of the U.S. Capitol on Monday, July 8, 2013. Barber, who works for the Department of the Navy, was furloughed due to the sequester cuts in the budget.

This week editors at Merriam Webster noticed an enormous spike in “look-ups” for one particular word: furlough. For the thousands of people who want to know what in the Sam Hill that term means and for others interested in shutdown buzzwords, TIME has put together a vocabulary cheat sheet for your reference during this political snafu:

blame game (n.): the ready or vociferous apportioning of blame.

This morning CNN anchor Chris Cuomo used one of the moment’s more popular metaphors: “The blame game,” he said. “Will day two be any different as the president stands firm and Republicans scramble for a new strategy?”  Battling over whether Obamacare should be defunded, Democrats and Republicans have both proved intrepid players in what might be America’s least favorite pastime. The Oxford English Dictionary added this cutesy phrase in 2004, dating its usage back to the 1950s when theater critic Kenneth Tynan referred to “the Blame Game” as “the worst of domestic rituals.”

blink first (v.): to give in during a high-tension standoff between fierce rivals.

Cable commentators have returned time and again to the same cliché: Who will blink first, Republicans or Democrats? The phrase is derived from a kids game in which children stare at each other and whoever blinks first is deemed the loser. The winner of the current blinking contest may end up with a Pyrrhic victory, one gained at great cost. That phrase gets its name from King Pyrrhus, who defeated the Romans in 279 BCE but sustained such heavy losses that he declared, “Such another victory and we are ruined.”

brinkmanship (n.): the art of advancing to the very brink of war but not engaging in it.

This word has been used in more than a thousand news stories in the last month—like this one from the Chicago Tribune—to describe the back-and-forth between politicians in Washington. And you’re likely only going to hear it more as the budget fight bleeds into the debt ceiling brawl. Brink is a Middle English word for the edge or border of a steep place, like, say, a potential economic abyss.

continuing resolution (n.): a measure to fund the government at existing levels without debating a new spending bill.

For years, Congress has used so-called CRs to fund the government rather than passing new appropriations bills. It’s a bit like the government is filling up its car by the thimble, giving itself only enough fuel to get to the next station—and not doing the engine any favors in the process. Lawmakers are currently arguing over a CR. When Democrats say they want a “clean” one, that means that they want a bill that deals with government funding without making big changes to other legislation, like the Affordable Care Act. (The above definition comes from this spiffy Washington Post video on government jargon.)

furlough (v.): to force an employee not to come to work and often dock his or her pay accordingly.

When used as a verb—when one is furloughed—the word is essentially an invitation to stay home and take a pay cut, whether you like it or not. More than an estimated 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed because of the shutdown. Centuries ago, a furlough was more commonly a permit or license given to a soldier to be absent from duty.

shutdown (n.): the cessation of operation.

Etymologists at Merriam Webster say that in the early 20th century, government shutdowns typically referred the government ordering non-governmental entities, like a horse track or a communist-leaning newspaper, to close up shop. In the 1960s, the phrase was used to refer to the feds enjoying paid holidays. Only in the 1970s, when the first government shutdowns like this one occurred, was there a need for the meaning everyone is using right now.

shutstorm (n.): a government shutdown marked by confusion and controversy.

The hashtag #shutstorm is currently making the rounds on Twitter, as veterans are being kept out of national war memorials and closed national parks are hemorrhaging revenue. This term is obviously a play on an excrement-based slang word which Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines as “a very confused or frightening situation.”

slimdown (n.): a nickname for a partial government shutdown, emphasizing that many parts of the government are still in operation.

Fox News started referring to the current shutdown as a “slimdown” on its website this week, with editors saying that despite the furloughs, “hundreds of thousands of other workers are reporting for work, and a patchwork of services remains open to the public.” Ben Zimmer, executive producer of Vocabulary.com, points out that using dieting metaphors to describe government cutbacks is an old trick. He tracked down a 1958 headline from the ­Christian Science Monitor to make his point: “Defense Department Holds Firm on Army Slimdown.” It’s also a good reminder that arguments about money are as old as the American government itself.

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.


The shut down is a sign that the US will be one of those nations we watch on television acting like the end is near. Our government is so screwed up with catering to the poor, who by the way do not earn what they get, they get free cell phones? How preposterous is that. No incentives for married people so the non working class(by choice) will spit out 5-10 kids, get them on meds, sell their meds and food stamps! The poor may not be as dumb as I think they are. Oh also the grand parents get to foster the kids and get 900-1500 a child per month! How lucrative is that?  The working class needs to rise up and take back our country, but we won't because we need work to help the needy! You're welcome!


People say that there’s this RACISM problem. People say that this RACISM problem will be solved when the developing world pours into EVERY white country and ONLY into white countries.

The Netherlands and Belgium are just as crowded as Japan or Taiwan, but nobody says Japan or Taiwan will solve the RACISM problem by bringing in millions of non-Asian people and “assimilating” with them.

People say that the final solution to the RACISM problem is for EVERY white country and ONLY white countries (along with EVERY white community and white institution) to “assimilate” with all those non-whites.

What if I said there was this RACISM problem and this RACISM problem would be solved only if hundreds of millions of non-blacks were brought into EVERY black country and ONLY into black countries?

How long would it take anyone to realize I’m not talking about a RACISM problem; I am talking about the final solution to the BLACK problem?

And how long would it take any sane black man to notice this and what kind of psycho black man wouldn’t object to this?

But if I tell that obvious truth about the ongoing program of genocide against my race, the White race, Liberals and respectable conservatives agree that I am a naziwhowantstokillsixmillionjews.

They say they are anti-racist. What they are is anti-white.

Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white.


The shutdown of the government could have a disastrous effect on the American economy. This is a serious matter. But nothing in more serious, at this time in history, than the on-going program of genocide being carried out against White people.  This genocide is not being carried out with guns, gas, or starvation.  Instead, it's being carried out using forced diversity (of non-Whites) into every White country, community, and institution on the earth. Africans, Arabs, Jews, Asians, etc are all free to have spaces and institutions of their own to follow their own destinies. Only Whites are denied this right. This will lead to the end of White people on earth. So called "anti-racism" is really just a code word for anti-White.


Thanks, Katy. You may next need to write a Weds. Words post covering debt ceiling words and phrases including "Mint the Coin", "14th Amendment", and "Financial Armageddon."


I just joined the site.I want to know if the site does subscription and sends words like these every day or on the weekly basis?


Oh, please.  

Spare us the cryptic "reporting" on semantics and speak to what's known. The GOP's "Big Business" campaign contributors want to use the imaginary "inability" (read: corrupting influence of the 1% and Foreign Lenders) to fulfill their PRESCRIBED DUTY to follow the express commands of the Constitution and RAISE REVENUE per Article I, Section 8.  

Conspicuously, it is the same GOP Congress that was prating on and on about "activist judges" and the need for a "strict construction" of the Constitution that now (lo and behold!) seem to have no qualms whatsoever in blatantly refusing to recognize or even follow the law. Tell me, how can ANY GOP pundit or elected official even intimate that the ACA/Obamacare is not the "law" after passing through three separate branches of our government? To even imply there is some "discretion" to "defund" a law that the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution requires each elected official to Faithfully Execute renders a mockery our system of government. What, should the People acquiesce to "activist" GOP members of Congress (read: EVERY one voted for this "shut down") refusing to follow the law and their agreed-upon duties? 

Just this: the GOP party- the ONLY one that tries to impugn the integrity of American government have no shame, no loyalty to the greater good, and now cling to fabricated "outrage" over illusory "wrongs" and purport to think, what, if you keep yelling "fire! fire!" the voting populace is going to start believing it.  

The truth is the truth- and just as there are over 1,000,000 DEAD as a result of Bush/Cheney's "talking points" drawing a fictitious connection between 9/11 and Iraq, so too will many suffer here. Perceiving this, there's nothing about "Benghazi" that approaches the "shame" or "wrong" or "deceit" of the GOP and its last Administration. Oh, and "politicizing" the deaths of the Americans? I'm sure Rove needed look no further than Pat Tillman's death to know where to start. 

You GOP people are sick.

During the interim, our President should execute an Executive Agreement (i.e., which requires NO CONGRESSIONAL approval) with the EU and Russia to create $25 trillion for each respective participant (e.g., with an option for five successive renewals every 5 or 10 years) in order to alleviate the crippling debt that affects both the United States, EU and Russia. A condition precedent of ratification should be the disbursement of 20% to the citizens in each respective sovereign and 15% must go to immediate renewable energy measures/desalination projects to be jointly completed by competitive bidding projects that must include businesses from each respective participant.

These sociopaths that want Western Civilization to writhe about in a fabricated state of fiscal disrepair need to be stopped. This is the time for President Obama to solidify his legacy and actually change Washington, DC. The aforementioned structure for an Executive Agreement is fully Constitutional and the Congress' anticipatory repudiation of its Constitutional duty to raise revenue provides an adequate justification (i.e., exigent circumstances) to meet with the EU and Russia sua sponte. 

The express provision allocating such a large share of revenue to the People of the United States makes it politically safe and, above all, such a material disbursement of revenue (e.g., allocated equally to ALL United States citizens) comports with the Equal Protection Clause. The bargained for legal detriment between the United States, EU and Russia shall be adequate consideration to support this Executive Agreement. 

Ah me, the Congress' treason requires same.

"Thy love afar is spite at home."- Emerson


Even those government employees that didn't get furloughed, we're not getting paid until the shutdown is over. We'll be working with the promise of getting paid. Sometime.Not now. Not on payday. I hate the republicans.


I just... man. I go away for a year and this is what the swampland has fallen to... quoting the dictionary? I guess it was the right decision.

Rather lackluster coverage all around. I'll peak in in another year, maybe it'll have improved.


@WalterWhite1, I hate whitey. I will always hate whitey. Your time has come and gone. It's our country now. deal with it. Jesus was black btw.


@Lavira76, prostitution is a noble profession, but please peddle your @ss somewhere else.


@gumOnShoe good to see you around gum, but guess we'll see you in another year.


@WalterWhite1, this is my second marriage. Both times to white women. I wonder why they chose me? You folks just aren't "measuring up".