The Grammarphobia Blog

Seize the day

Q: We’re being subjected to a lot more Wall Street lingo than usual. One example that bothers me is “seize up.” I can’t count the number of times pundits have said the credit market markets are seizing up. Is it the same as freezing up? This usage is a new one to me. Have I missed something?

A: Yes, you apparently have missed something here. The term “seize up” (meaning to freeze or lock fast) has been around for more than a century.

When the verb “seize” entered English in the late 1200s, it had two different meanings: (1) to put in possession, or (2) to take possession.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, to “seize of” or “seize with” or “seize in” meant “to put (a person) in legal possession of a feudal holding; to invest or endow with property; to establish in a holding or an office or dignity.” At the same time, to “seize” simply meant to take possession or confiscate.

This sense of grabbing and holding on led to another usage centuries later. In the 1870s, the terms “seize” and “seize up” were used in reference to machines or mechanisms. Thus, the OED says, to “seize up” meant “to stick, jam, or lock fast; to become unworkable, as by reason of undue heat or friction.”

This meaning led to a figurative usage of the term beginning in the 1950s. The OED gives these citations:

1955, from a book on social work: “When the social service system was primitive it could do without case-work: the more elaborate modern machine would seize up.”

1960, from The Buried Day, an autobiography by Cecil Day Lewis: “I read the book; then, for hour after hour, I sat trying to think of something to say about it. I could not…. My brain had seized up.”

1976, from Testkill, a novel by Ted Dexter and Clifford Makins: “Any exercise … might make me seize up.”

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