Q&A: Shut vs Shutter

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're opening your mind to the joys of “shut”…

Q: Hi AWC, what’s the difference between “shut” and “shutter”?

A: One means “closed” and the other is useful in photography.

Q: No, I don’t mean the adjective “shut” or the noun “shutter”…

A: Oh, the noun “shutter” is also the name for window coverings.

Q: Ah yes, those “plantation shutters” that you put on windows to make them look fancy but then no one can see out?

A: Yes, those are the ones.

Q: Anyway, I’m talking about the VERBS “shut” and “shutter” – they seem to get used interchangeably.

A: Examples?

Q: Well when a storm is coming, the news will often say that buildings have been shuttered rather than simply shut. Or when they go out of business, they aren’t simply shut, they’re shuttered.

A: Okay, well “shut” is an interesting word – capable of being an adjective such as in “we’re shut at the moment” (the same as “closed”) or more commonly a verb. In almost all cases, it’s possible to simply replace shut with the verb “close”.

Q: But you can’t just replace it with “shutter”?

A: Not always. They both mean to close, however “shutter” has another layer.

Q: Wasn’t that Luke?

A: No, not another “Leia” as in Star Wars. Sheesh, talk about spoilers. Next you’ll be telling everyone about how Darth Vader was their father…

Q: Um.

A: Oops.

Q: Anyway, why is “shutter” different to “shut”?

A: “Shut” has a sense of routine or ordinariness about it, such as “shutting a shop” at the end of the day or to “shut a book” or “shut the fridge”. As we said, it’s really just a synonym of “close”.

Q: Okay.

A: The word “shut” came from Old English “scyttan” and West Germanic “skutjan” – meaning “to put a bolt in place so as to fasten a door or gate”. It established itself in the 14th century, but wasn’t until the 19th century that we got phrases like “shut up” for stopping talking or “shutdown” in the turn of the 20th century.

Q: I guess there were no machines to shut down before then!

A: Fair point. The phrase for sleep – to get some “shut-eye” – is from 1899, although a Hans Christian Anderson tale about “Ole’ Shut-eye” (a character who makes kids sleepy) was written half a century earlier.

Q: So when did “shutter” turn up?

A: The noun came first – initially as “one who shuts” – in the 16th century, followed by the window covering in the late 17th century. The camera device had to wait for cameras to be invented, so didn’t turn up till the 1860s.

Q: And the verb?

A: It’s relatively new, certainly compared to “shut”. It arrived in English in 1826 off the back of both noun meanings that existed for “shutter” at the time – one who shuts and the window covering.

Q: I’m still not clear when you’d shutter and when you’d simply shut?

A: Remember those shutters that don’t really let you see out?

Q: Yeah.

A: Well, they’re kind of the key here. Sometimes literally – as in using physical shutters to protect from the weather or closing for a longer period of time. Other times, it’s more to describe a permanent end. Unlike “shut”, there is NO sense of routine or ordinariness about “shutter”.

Q: Examples?

A: “In preparation for the storm, the houses along the coastline were shuttered.” In that case, it’s a literal interpretation – as they probably use actual storm shutters that are fixed to the windows. Businesses also have security shutters, so you might see: “downtown Washington DC was shuttered in anticipation of riots”.

Q: Wow, a storm AND riots. Sounds serious.

A: It doesn’t have to be serious. You might simply shutter your cabin at the end of summer – it’s literally being closed off physically with shutters or something similar.

Q: But it can also be more permanent?

A: Yep. The other common meaning is less about physical shutters and more about ceasing activity for good.

Q: Examples?

A: “The company is shuttering three of its factories this year due to falling demand for fidget spinners.” Or you might declare bankruptcy and “shutter your offices”.

Q: But can’t you just use “shut” in those last examples?

A: Well, you could. Just like you could use “close” for shut. Without synonyms, Roget would have been out of a job.

Q: Ah yes, Roget and his famous thesaurus. What a great, awesome, amazing, prodigious, incredible, wonderful, exceptional, thaumaturgic man!

A: Quite.

Q: So, back to simply replacing “shutter” with “shut” when ending things?

A: There is more of a sense of closure (rather than simply closing for the day) that comes with “shutter” in this context – actually more synonymous with “shut down”. For example, “the US wants Iran to shutter its nuclear weapons program”.

Q: Shut the front door!

A: No, that won’t protect you in a nuclear explosion.

Q: Well, what about shutting the fridge door like in Indiana Jones?

A: No, he was too close to the blast. The lead lining of the fridge would have melted and offered no protection.

Q: Fair enough. So, where were we?

A: We were finishing up. Are you happy with the difference now?

Q: Yeah I think so. To “shut” is simply to close, and is used in ordinary situations. Meanwhile, to “shutter” is either to physically close up a building or to shut down a business, factory or any kind of activity.

A: That’s right. And while “shut” can sometimes be used instead of “shutter” for the non-literal shuttering contexts (e.g., “the company is shutting three of its factories”), there is still a subtle difference in the sense of closure taking place. “Shutter” is simply more dramatic.

Q: Speaking of drama, have you seen the film Shutter Island?

A: Oh yes, that’s the one where at the end you find out that—

Q: Nooooo you’ve ruined enough movies for one day!

A: Fair enough. Shall we shut this conversation down then?

Q: Yes, just for this week though. No need to shutter them for good…


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