Language change outdoes nonsense, just as misbehaviour outdoes satire. In Through the Looking-Glass Alice mentions to the Gnat that, where she comes from, they have butterflies. ‘“Crawling at your feet,” the Gnat said, “you may observe a Bread-and-Butterfly. Its wings are thin slices of bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar. It lives on weak tea with cream in it.” “Supposing it couldn’t find any?” Alice asked. “Then it would die, of course,” the Gnat replied. “But that must happen very often,” Alice remarked thoughtfully. “It always happens,” said the Gnat.’
In April last year, I wrote, with regard to vaccination, about ramping up, a phrase that had been applied to industrial production in the 1980s, but ultimately derived from medieval heraldic fauna rearing up — lions rampant and so on. Now we read in the press about Operation Rampdown, a briefing paper prepared by the UK Health Security Agency. ‘What activities can we start ramping down before April?’ is one of the questions posed. It doesn’t seem to matter that the phrase ramp down does not exist in English. Like the Bread-and-Butterfly, it was high time it did.
Although the Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for ramp down, the phrase occurs unnoted there, hidden in a 2005 quotation from the New York Times to illustrate the adjective fast-tracked: ‘Booz Allen Hamilton has a “ramp up, ramp down” policy that lets fast-tracked employees take timeouts from client work without scuttling their careers.’
A similar phrase that few recognised as English came from the final statements of COP26, in which coal was not to be phased out, but phased down. Compared with ramp down, this is a long-established expression, going back to 1957, again in America: ‘The army said it will be necessary to “phase down or close” some posts.’
All this phasing is a metaphor from electrical engineering, where oscillations or alternating currents have to be in phase with each other. It takes something like COP to seize upon a popularly obscure element of electric engineering to explain to the public its future course.