asleep at the switch


a slender, flexible shoot, rod, etc., used especially in whipping or disciplining.
an act of whipping or beating with or as with such an object; a stroke, lash, or whisking movement.
a slender growing shoot, as of a plant.
a hairpiece consisting of a bunch or tress of long hair or some substitute, fastened together at one end and worn by women to supplement their own hair.
Electricity. a device for turning on or off or directing an electric current or for making or breaking a circuit.
Railroads. a track structure for diverting moving trains or rolling stock from one track to another, commonly consisting of a pair of movable rails.
a turning, shifting, or changing: a switch of votes to another candidate.
Bridge. a change to a suit other than the one played or bid previously.
Basketball. a maneuver in which two teammates on defense shift assignments so that each guards the opponent usually guarded by the other.
a tuft of hair at the end of the tail of some animals, as of the cow or lion.
verb (used with object)
to whip or beat with a switch or the like; lash: He switched the boy with a cane.
to move, swing, or whisk (a cane, a fishing line, etc.) with a swift, lashing stroke.
to shift or exchange: The two girls switched their lunch boxes.
to turn, shift, or divert: to switch conversation from a painful subject.
Electricity. to connect, disconnect, or redirect (an electric circuit or the device it serves) by operating a switch (often followed by off or on ): I switched on a light.
to move or transfer (a train, car, etc.) from one set of tracks to another.
to drop or add (cars) or to make up (a train).
Movies, Television. to shift rapidly from one camera to another in order to change camera angles or shots.
verb (used without object)
to strike with or as with a switch.
to change direction or course; turn, shift, or change.
to exchange or replace something with another: He used to smoke this brand of cigarettes, but he switched.
to move or sway back and forth, as a cat's tail.
to be shifted, turned, etc., by means of a switch.
Basketball. to execute a switch.
Bridge. to lead a card of a suit different from the suit just led by oneself or one's partner.
asleep at the switch, Informal. failing to perform one's duty, missing an opportunity, etc., because of negligence or inattention: He lost the contract because he was asleep at the switch.

1585–95; earlier swits, switz slender riding whip, flexible stick; compare Low German (Hanoverian) schwutsche long, thin stick

switchable, adjective
switcher, noun
switchlike, adjective
unswitchable, adjective
unswitched, adjective

7. change, shift, alternation, substitution. Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2015.
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World English Dictionary
switch (swɪtʃ)
1.  a mechanical, electrical, electronic, or optical device for opening or closing a circuit or for diverting energy from one part of a circuit to another
2.  a swift and usually sudden shift or change
3.  an exchange or swap
4.  a flexible rod or twig, used esp for punishment
5.  the sharp movement or blow of such an instrument
6.  a tress of false hair used to give added length or bulk to a woman's own hairstyle
7.  the tassel-like tip of the tail of cattle and certain other animals
8.  any of various card games in which the suit is changed during play
9.  (US), (Canadian) a railway siding
10.  (US), (Canadian) a railway point
11.  informal (Austral) See switchboard
12.  to shift, change, turn aside, or change the direction of (something)
13.  to exchange (places); replace (something by something else): the battalions switched fronts
14.  chiefly (US), (Canadian) to transfer (rolling stock) from one railway track to another
15.  (tr) to cause (an electric current) to start or stop flowing or to change its path by operating a switch
16.  to swing or cause to swing, esp back and forth
17.  (tr) to lash or whip with or as if with a switch
[C16: perhaps from Middle Dutch swijch branch, twig]

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009
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Word Origin & History

1592, "slender riding whip," probably from a Flemish or Low German word akin to Hanoverian swutsche, a variant of Low Ger. zwukse "long thin stick, switch," from Gmc. base *swih- (cf. O.H.G. zwec "wooden peg," Ger. Zweck "aim, design," originally "peg as a target," Zwick "wooden peg"), perhaps connected
with PIE base *swei- "to swing, bend, to turn." The meaning "device for changing the direction of something or making or breaking a connection" is first recorded 1797. "The peg sense suits the mech(anical) applications" [Weekley], and these senses may be a direct borrowing from those senses in Continantal Gmc. languages rather than a continuation of the "pliant wand" sense. The meaning "a change, a reversal, an exchange, a substitution" is first recorded 1920. Switchblade dates from 1932, from the "switch" which is pressed to spring the knife open. Switchboard first attested 1884.

c.1611, "to strike with a switch," from switch (n.). The meaning "turn off or on" is first recorded 1853, of trains on tracks, 1881 of electricity, 1932 of radio or (later) television. Sense of "shift, divert" is from 1860. Meaning "to change one thing for another" is recorded
from 1919. Switch-hitter is 1930s in baseball slang, 1956 in the sense of "bisexual person." Switchback in ref. to zig-zag railways is recorded from 1863.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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American Heritage
Idioms & Phrases

asleep at the switch

Also, asleep at the wheel. Inattentive, not doing one's job, as in At the critical moment the watchman was asleep at the switch and only called the fire department when it was too late. This term came from 19th-century American railroading, when it was the trainman's duty to switch cars from one track to another by means of manually operated levers. Should he fail to do so, trains could collide. It was later transferred to any lack of alertness. The wheel in the variant is a steering wheel; similarly disastrous results are implied.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer.
Copyright © 1997. Published by Houghton Mifflin.
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