melt / meltdown

The noun meltdown is a rather recent coinage, a product of our nuclear age, but the phrasal verb, to melt down, is significantly older. And the base verb to melt, as one might expect, is even older still.

The modern verb to melt is actually the result of the melding of two distinct Old English verbs. One is the intransitive and strong verb meltan, and the second is a transitive and weak verb with the forms miltan, myltan, mieltan, and meltan. The two became conflated in Old English, leaving us with the one modern form.

Starting in the sixteenth century, melt was combined with the preposition down to form the phrasal verb, meaning to “liquefy metal or other substances such as fat.” The Oxford English Dictionary has a first citation from Philip Sydney’s Astrophel and Stella, written sometime before 1586:

When sorrow (vsing my owne Siers might) Melts downe his lead into my boyling brest.

In the mid-twentieth century, the phrasal verb was adopted by the nuclear industry to refer to the liquefying of a reactor’s uranium fuel in an accident. This is from Science magazine, 24 August 1956:

A small experimental operation of a fast-breeder type reactor “melted down” in Arco, Idaho, last November.

The noun entered the language at the same time and in the same context. Nucleonics magazine that same year including this subject heading:

A letter on EBR-I fuel meltdown

There actually is an older use of the noun recorded in the OED in a very different context. It is undoubtedly an independent coinage. And given the simple nature of the constituent words, if one searches hard enough, it is probable that other instances will turn up. It’s from the Ice Cream Trade Journal of March 1937:

The Sod. Alg. ice cream melts down cleanly in the mouth. [...] Due to the clean melt-down [...] a cooler sensation results in the mouth than with gelatin ice cream.

Given the nuclear association present with today’s use of the verb, it is unlikely that the verb would be used in such an unaffected way today.

Inspired by the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania, the verb meltdown acquired a figurative sense of any disaster. In their 1983 book Dismantling America, Susan and Martin Tolchin included “Political meltdown” as a section header. And this sentence appears in the Washington Post of 3 June 1986

Such a “meltdown,” as it was referred to by lawyers on the case, could have had catastrophic repercussions in the nation’s mortgage markets.


Work cited:

“melt, v.1,” “meltdown, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Third edition. November 2010. Web. 12 March 2011.

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