Are you down with that?

What goes up must come down. Even those of us who skipped physics class know this. The coming down can be even harder than the going up, even when the going up includes a load in a backpack.

Especially those of us who recently overstretched themselves hiking in New Hampshire's White Mountains know this.

A day or so later, I was more aware of my quadriceps than usual as I moved about in the kitchen during my usual breakfast drill with radio newscast. And so my ears pricked up at a particular use of the word "drawdown."

Before Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's speech before Congress last week, Democrats objected to his denunciation of Israel. But they later rethought themselves somewhat, a move one of the "talking heads" on the radio called a "drawdown."

Hmm, I wondered, does he mean "climbdown"?

The analyst's word choice made me think what a nuanced area of language this is. "Drawdown" may have been on the tip of his tongue – as it is on many other tongue-tips, too – because of its association with US troops in Iraq: "Iraq Drawdown Plan Offers Wide-Ranging Options, Including Large Cuts" was a recent headline from a newsletter I saw.

But part of what makes "drawdown" an attractive word choice for the military is that it has other lives in civilian dress. However great the claim the Middle East makes on our hearts at the moment, most of the hits from a Google News search of "drawdown" refer to drawing down levels of bodies of water managed by engineers.

The term is also used in the financial world to refer to reduction in account equity from a trade or a series of trades. "Drawdown" also shows up in the term "pressure drawdown," a bit of oil field lingo.

Especially because of its engineering definition, "drawdown" sounds so intentional. "Withdrawal" does, too – but not "retreat," which ought to mean exactly the same thing but instead carries more than a whiff of defeat about it.

An alternative is the active-sounding "climbdown," a usage that goes back to the 1880s, but is still very current, probably because so many public figures continue to take positions they have to get down from later.

Sometimes a climbdown can be perceived positively. And when Congress was up in arms over an FBI raid on the offices of a House member under investigation, the cooling-off period President Bush offered was described by one blogger as "ladder for a climbdown" by the energized lawmakers.

There's a concreteness about this that's a nice touch, even if the ladder in the headline morphed into a lifesaver in the body of the piece. (There's a political lesson there, too: If you want to get your opponents to climb down, it helps to be there with a ladder.)

A third phrase pops up occasionally to describe emotionally charged downward movements: "race to the bottom." It captures the speaker's dismay at what seems to be a perverse competition to end up in worst place.

The phrase appeared in a report in the Globe and Mail on pollution data released by the agency set up to monitor the environmental effects of North American free trade: "There were fears that a trade bloc including Mexico would lead to a so-called race to the bottom for environmental laws, with Canada and the United States gutting rules to compete with a developing country."

"Drawdown" and "climbdown" are terms that can put a positive spin on actions that may be difficult to take but often the right thing to do. My own descent from Mt. Jackson was a reminder just how hard a literal climbdown can be.

The less widely used "race to the bottom" is very different. It's a race no one should want to enter, much less win.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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