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Panic button

Q From James Morris, Singapore: Who first hit the panic button?

A We don’t absolutely know for certain (I ought to have a digital rubber stamp available with that on) but the evidence points to US military pilots of the Korean War.

An early example is dated August 1950. A once famous but long-gone builder of military aircraft, the Republic Aviation Corporation of Long Island, issued a jokey guide to the slang of jet pilots in its house magazine The Pegasus as an “educational aid” to civilian pilots who were retraining to fly jets. The only item of interest was panic button, defined as a “state of emergency when the pilot mentally pushes buttons and switches in all directions”. Contemporary examples are known from other aviation magazines, one of which referred disparagingly to some MiG pilots during the Korean War as panic-button boys who bailed out at the first sign of action.

What’s uncertain is the exact origin. To judge by a short article by Lt Col James L Jackson of the US Air Force in American Speech in October 1956, even the flyboys weren’t sure at the time. He said that “to hit the panic button” was used to mean “the person spoke or acted in unnecessary haste or near panic.” He identified four possible button contenders, but concluded:

The actual source seems probably to have been the bell system in the Second World War bombers (B-17, B-24) for emergency procedures such as bailout and ditching, an emergency bell system that was central in the experience of most Air Force pilots. In case of fighter or flak damage so extensive that the bomber had to be abandoned, the pilot rang a “prepare-to- abandon” ring and then a ring meaning “jump.” The bell system was used since the intercom was apt to be out if there was extensive damage... The implications of the phrase seem to have come from those few times when pilots “hit the panic button” too soon and rang for emergency procedures over minor damage, causing their crews to bail out unnecessarily.

This is supported by a quote from The Lowell Sun of Massachusetts, dated December 1950, that refers to US troops in Korea (“But they have a phrase to describe this senseless gossip mongering. They call it ‘ringing the panic button.’”), by one from the Daily Review of Hayward, California, on 3 January 1951 (“The expression stemmed from the signal given by the pilot of a plane which is in serious trouble. He pushes a button sounding a buzzer which means everybody is to bail out.”), and by a note in the New York Times Magazine on 13 May 1951: “Someone remembered the ‘panic button’ in an airplane that is pressed when time comes to abandon ship.”

In 1955, a glossary of Air Force slang appeared in American Speech, compiled by Leo Engler from pilots at the Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas. Under “hit the panic button”, he wrote:

There is a switch called the ‘panic button’ in the cockpit of a jet aircraft which jettisons objects, including extra fuel tanks, in order to lighten the plane. Conditions under which this switch is used are usually quite desperate. In case of a power failure, for example, when all the prescribed remedial procedures fail, the pilot might in desperation ‘push everything that’s out and pull everything that’s in,’ in the hope that he might accidentally do something helpful.

This fits the definition that appeared in another glossary, in the 20 November 1950 issue of Pacific Stars and Stripes: “The Panic Button automatically drops the wing tanks, rockets, and bombs when a pilot has to jettison weight to keep flying.”

I’m not convinced about Jackson’s dating, despite his note that “[d]iscussion with Air Force officers and airmen reveals that the phrase to hit the panic button was in use during the Second World War”. There’s no example of the phrase on record before 1950, but on the other hand there are lots of them in the years that follow, early ones all linked to the Korean War. The Daily Review article also noted that “It’s a new phrase which blossomed in the Korean war. And now you hear it on all sides. It’s always uttered as broad humor. Whenever an outfit makes a routine move, the big joke is that ‘somebody pushed the panic button.’”

Whatever the precise origin, there’s no doubt that the phrase was popular among flyers in the Korean War and that it filtered back to the US civilian population and from there to the whole English-speaking world. It proved a useful term for any button or switch that operated some device in an emergency or which raised an alarm.

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Page created 26 Apr 2008