What Does To Break Down Mean?

To Break Down Meaning

Definition: To stop functioning, collapse in emotion, or lose willpower.

This phrasal verb has a variety of meanings. One is (and the earliest) when a machine stops working completely. Usually, it is something with an engine or motor—like a computer or car—but not always. A carriage may break down, meaning that it falls apart to the ground.

A second meaning is an emotional breakdown, where the person gets so overwhelmed that he or she breaks down and can no longer perform the task he or she is required to do. This is often accompanied by an overflow of tears, though it can also be pure exhaustion.

A third meaning is when someone pesters you for long enough that you break down and agree to what he or she says.

Origin of To Break Down

broke down meaning From the late 1300s, break down, or go to pieces, was connected with the word failure of material objects. We started seeing it as both a noun (breakdown) and a verb (to break down) by the mid- to late-1800s.

There is an early example of transportation breaking down in Max Pemberton’s 1894 The Iron Pirate:

  • The great ship still trembled under the shock of the breakdown and was not showing ten knots.

The idea of breaking down first came with machinery, as the vehicle did not just break, it broke into pieces that fell down to the ground and rendered the vehicle unusable. Breaking a piece of something is different in that the mechanism can still function while breaking down means that the mechanism cannot run unless repaired.

By 1904, this phrase describes a mental breakdown. In Thomas W. Lawson’s Frenzied Finance we can read,

  • The first time was in 1887, following a breakdown from overwork.

Examples of To Break Down

bus break down meaning In the modern day, people use break down in all three of its meanings.

For example,

  • Their car broke down while driving to Pennsylvania.
  • My sister broke down when her beloved cat died.
  • I finally broke down and agreed to go to the concert with my friend, even though I had an exam the next day.

More Examples

  • In 2005, one border project was harshly criticized by lawmakers after it was reported that cameras broke down frequently. –New York Times
  • “Difficult to describe emotions,” [Rafa] Nadal, who broke down in tears when he congratulated [Grigor] Dimitrov after the match, said. –Times of India


Define breaking down: a failure of any sort, be it emotional, physical, or mental.