Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we’ve been under a shelter-in-place directive in response to the COVID-19 health crisis since Tuesday, March 18. On March 20, California Governor Gavin Newsom expanded shelter-in-place to all of the state’s 40 million residents, with no set end date. We’re hunkering down indoors, dashing out only for essential activities (including fresh-air exercise that observes safe physical distancing from other humans).
Shelter-in-place has been borrowed for this unprecedented crisis from earlier applications in emergency management. In 2013, after the Boston Marathon bombings, Ben Zimmer traced the phrase’s origins to “Cold War scenarios of nuclear fallout.” The earliest usage he found was in a 1976 congressional hearing on civil defense: the general idea is to encourage people to stay at home, indoors, rather than evacuate to a central gathering spot. Shelter-in-place has since been pressed into service for weather emergencies such as hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes as well as for the all-too-familiar-by-now active-shooter situations. (In ordering New York State’s version of shelter-in-place, which went into effect at 8 p.m. March 22, Governor Andrew Cuomo eschewed “shelter-in-place” because the term “evoked active shooter situations and nuclear war,” according to a New York Times story. Instead, the order is called PAUSE—the acronym awkwardly stands for “Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone.”)
So much for the whole phrase. But what about the verb—where does shelter come from, and what has it signified over the years?