What Does Pull the Plug Mean?

Pull the Plug Meaning

Definition: To terminate a project, end support, or remove a person from medical life support.

Origin of Pull the Plug Meaning

The word plug in this idiom refers to the device at the end of a power cord that makes an electrical connection with an outlet. It usually has two or three metal prongs on the end, which go into the outlet holes.

Therefore, the literal meaning of pull the plug is simply to unplug something. For example, to pull the plug is to remove the power cord of an electronic device from the outlet.

The first figurative usage, meaning to terminate a project or to withdraw support, originated around the 1940s.

Another figurative usage, meaning to take a person off of life support, originated a little later, in the 1960s.

Both senses of the idiom show the clear connection between cutting off electrical power and cutting off support.

Using pull the plug to describe removing a person from life support is insensitive. For that reason, you should not use it if you are trying to be sympathetic. People often use it as a way to argue that a person should remain on life support, because in their opinion, pulling the plug would be cruel.

Examples of Pull the Plug Meaning

pull the plug offIn the following example, two friends are discussing a sick family member.

Kerry: I’m worried that Aunt Bessie will never come out of the coma.

Christine: Well, I think you might be right. The doctors said that if she were going to wake up, it would be sooner rather than later. It’s been a week already. Her health is getting worse instead of better.

Kerry: Are you saying that we should just give up on her?

Christine: No, but she never wanted to be on life support. She had a DNR (do not resuscitate) order.

Kerry: So we should just pull the plug?

Christine: Don’t think of it that way. Think of it as following her last wishes.

pull the plug onIn this dialogue, two friends are discussing the organization they both work for.

Arlena: I have bad news. The Environmental Defense Group might not exist for much longer.

Nyima: Why not?

Arlena: The group’s biggest financial supporter is pulling the plug on funding. The group won’t be able to afford to operate after that.

More Examples

The example below is about some people who provide funding for football teams and how they don’t like the players to protest politically.

  • Many brokers and bankers — some of whom are also military veterans — have threatened to pull the plug on pro football for not reining in players who are using the American national anthem as an opportunity to protest by taking the knee. –New York Post

This excerpt is from an article about a woman who wrote a book about a magazine that she ran.

  • Brown ran Vanity Fair from 1983 to 1992. In the early days, the magazine struggled mightily, and she had to plead with S.I.Newhouse to give her a few more issues and not pull the plug. –New York Post


The phrase pull the plug means to suddenly stop supporting something, to end a project, or to allow someone who is being kept alive by machines to die.