I was reading this sentence from Phrasal Verbs Practice Tests ebook by Jacqueline Melvin, and the meaning of 'kick in' confused me a little.

“We’re sorry to have to tell you John but your father has just passed away. We did all we could to save him but his heart "kicked in,” said Doctor Jamieson to a distraught John.

Can someone clarify the meaning of "kicked in" here? Can it have a positive or negative meaning according to context?

In the answers page of the book I read this sentence, it is explained as "to stop functioning":  *Kick in = to stop functioning

but this meaning doesn't comply with the dictionary.

  • 6
    Where did you read this? It is confusing to this native speaker too; I don't know what it's supposed to mean. Kick in usually means something like "start working", but that obviously doesn't make sense if the character died.
    – stangdon
    Commented May 9, 2022 at 13:23
  • I read it on Phrasal verbs practice tests ebook by Jacqueline Melvin.
    – Max
    Commented May 9, 2022 at 13:26
  • 4
    I'm with stangdon. I've never come across it in the sense that JM interprets it. Avoid it in that context. Commented May 9, 2022 at 13:37
  • @stangdon that seems to be a free 'independently published' e-book, one of a number by Ms Melvin. Some of her example usages seem a little quaint - for a question which I presume requires 'get away' as the answer, the poor speaker who has been working too hard intends to 'go to Bournemouth for a few days'. I can imagine the doctor could convey the intended meaning by saying that the hearer's father's heart 'packed in' (and editing has been a little hasty, or nonexistent) but that seems jarringly casual for the situation. Commented May 9, 2022 at 13:42
  • 2
    We usually say that something kicks in when it starts working or taking effect - I couldn't sleep so I took one of my sleeping tablets and lay in bed waiting for it to kick in. I would treat this book with caution. Sometimes with free things, you get what you pay for. Commented May 9, 2022 at 13:48

1 Answer 1


As you've already found out, the definition of "kicked in" doesn't make sense in that sentence, but there is some old slang that might explain why the author used it:

kick in

  1. Contribute one's share, as in We'll kick in half if you take care of the rest. [Colloquial; c. 1900]
  2. Also, kick off. Die, as in No one knows when he'll kick in, or He finally kicked off yesterday. [Slang; first half of 1900s] Also see kick the bucket.
  3. Begin to operate, as in Finally the motor kicked in and we could get started. This usage was first recorded in 1908.
    (The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer.)

We when a machine suddenly stops running, we can say it “died”:

To stop working or operating: The motor died when we ran out of gas.

Maybe the author thought “kicked in” could be used as a synonym in a similar situation, but it isn’t commonly used like that any longer.

A more modern phrase that would make sense there is "gave out", or "To suddenly fail or collapse."

“We’re sorry to have to tell you John but your father has just passed away. We did all we could to save him but his heart gave out,” said Doctor Jamieson to a distraught John.

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