dampen down

The November 7 New Scientist article “Inject cells to stop body attacking self” (by Jessica Hamzelou) twice refers to cells (regulatory T-cells) that “dampen down the body’s immune response”. I would have used damp down or plain dampen (without the particle down), or even plain damp. Dampen down struck me as overkill.

Dampen down turns out to be reasonably common on the web, and from a variety of  sources, e.g.:

[Times Online] Jack Straw tries to dampen down claims of a plot against Gordon Brown (link)

[Birmingham Mail] Blues felt compelled to dampen down fresh speculation about Patrick Vieira … (link)

[House of Commons debate] Will the Prime Minister dampen down the hysteria in this country about Irish-American support for violence in Northern Ireland …? (link)

[Harper’s Magazine] The insurgents have made it pretty clear in a series of public statements and private communications that they’re willing to start talking and dampen down the violence if the United States commits to withdrawing from Iraq. (link)

These have the transitive verb dampen in the sense ‘dull, deaden, diminish the force or ardour of, depress’ (OED2) rather than in the sense ‘make damp’. There are also intransitive uses, as in this quotation from the Harper’s article linked to above:

… make a credible commitment to withdrawing and the insurgency will dampen down and we’ll …

The hits for dampen down are very heavily (but not entirely) from British sources — this despite the fact that OED2 labels plain dampen (it doesn’t have cites for dampen down) as “now chiefly U.S.” Of course, that was 20 years ago.

Damp down (in the relevant sense) is of course reasonably common in both American and British sources. There’s even at least one New Scientist cite:

Body’s natural painkillers may damp down phobias (link)

[Historical notes. The noun damp, the adjective damp, the verb damp, and the verb dampen all have a variety of senses, some now obsolete or used only in special contexts. The noun damp is the first attested (but only from 1480, though it has correspondents in a number of Germanic languages, back to Middle Low German and Middle High German) and the verb dampen is the most recent (17th century). All these items are historically related, in a complex way.

Because of this historical relatedness, the senses ‘make slightly wet’ and ‘make less strong or intense’ (NOAD2) for dampen are put together in a single entry in most dictionaries, even though the first seems clearly to be the adjective damp plus causative -en and the second looks like an extended variant of the verb damp — with the result that modern speakers have trouble seeing items with such divergent meanings as being “the same” verb.]

3 Responses to “dampen down”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    “Of course, that was 20 years ago.”
    More like 110 years ago. It’s one of many entries unchanged since the first edition. Vol III: D-E was published in 1899.

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To mollymooly: ouch. I should have checked. But thanks.

    The older usage and style labels in the OED are undependable at best. Sometimes they seem to be nothing more than staff hunches.

  3. MichaelStreet Says:

    Any chance there’s an eggcorny-thing going on here with ‘tamp down’?

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