hit the panic button

H - P

hit the panic button


press the panic button,
push the panic button,
smash the panic button,


  • prepare for disaster
  • react poorly to a circumstance
  • the result of being caught off-guard
  • to implement a haphazard plan
  • chaotically react
  • do something quickly without thinking about it in order to deal with a bad, difficult, or worrying situation.

 Example Sentences

  1. Dad’s fishing pole dove into the lake without warning, and he hit the panic button before jumping up with the reel-spinning like crazy in his hand.
  2. Our factory caught fire today and since no one was trained on how to handle it, everyone hit the panic button and ran around yelling, “Fire!”
  3. The guy who sleeps in class pressed the panic button upon realizing that we had an assignment due today. 
  4. My bedroom door opened, and as I hurried to pretend I was sleeping, my sister said, “No need to smash the panic button, it’s just me.”
  5. They have lost the last three football matches, but they’re still not pushing the panic button.


The consensus is that “panic button” phrases began during WWII, referencing the B-17 and B-24 bombers, which had bell systems (yes, actual bells) that would be rung in the event of catastrophic damage, signaling the crew to jump ship. While this does seem to be the origin of the actual panic button, it falls short of being called the beginning of the idiom.

Fast forward to 1955, Leo Engler constructed a glossary of Air Force slang from pilots at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas for the academic journal American Speech, which is still in print to this day. Under the headline “Hit The Panic Button,” Leo wrote this:

“There is a switch called the ‘panic button‘ in the cockpit of a jet aircraft which jettisons objects- including extra fuel tanks – in order to lighten the plane. Conditions under which this switch is used are usually quite desperate. In case of a power failure, for example, when all the prescribed remedial procedures fail, the pilot might in desperation ‘push everything that’s out and pull everything that’s in,’ in the hopes that he might accidentally do something helpful.”

This sounds much closer to our idiom than the bells from WWII. Since that day in 1955, the proverbial “panic button” has made itself known to all and has since been made standard equipment for all military aircraft, as well as equipment in many industrial settings.

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