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I was wondering where the phrase "on the blink" comes from. According to the OED the first recorded usage is from

1901 ‘H. McHugh’ John Henry 83 A stranglehold line of business that will put Looey Harrison on the blink.

But what is the relationship between the word "blink" and its usage in this phrase?

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In the context of the quote, it sounds like the phrase should have been "...will put Looey Harrison on the brink." Of going out of business, most likely. –  Gnawme Jan 28 at 21:29
    
@Gnawme Well that would be a massive error by the OED if you are right! –  Anush Jan 28 at 21:32
    
No, it is indeed "on the blink" –  medica Jan 29 at 0:35

2 Answers 2

The most persuasive discussion of the etymology of "on the blink" is this article that investigates the etymology of the American expression "on the fritz," for which it notes that the British and Australian equivalent is "on the blink."

A key part of the article quotes yet another article, which notes:

The phrase is now a common expression meaning that some mechanism is malfunctioning or broken. However, when it first appeared — about 1902 — it meant that something was in a bad way or bad condition. Early recorded examples refer to the poor state of some domestic affairs, the lack of success of a stage show, and an injured leg — not a machine or device in sight.

It goes on to observe:

Some people have suggested it might be an imitation of the pfzt noise that a faulty connection in an electrical machine might make, or the sound of a fuse blowing. This theory falls down because none of the early examples is connected with electrical devices, and the phrase pre-dates widespread use of electricity anyway.

The article finally reaches the conclusion:

I’ve gone around the houses, considered this theory and that, but come to no very definite conclusion. But the truth is that nobody really knows, nor now is ever likely to.

I would suggest that the expression might be connected with the fact that, when we blink, we stop seeing -- our vision effectively stops working. Something that's on the blink would then be in a state where it's not working, or not working fully.

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An interesting hypothesis! Although I would disagree with the idea that we can never know. There is lot of 19th century literature still available! –  Anush Jan 28 at 21:37
    
Knowing the limitations of Ngrams, it appears that "on the blink" came into usage ca. 1900s. –  medica Jan 28 at 21:42

If something of the dashboard of your car is blinking it can be a signal that you are running out of petrol or oil or something like that. When the petrol indicator is on the blink it is a warning signal you have to pay attention to. So a signal on the blink means it is in a blinking state and the consequence is something is out of order.

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The thing is that the expression predates electronics. –  Anush Jan 28 at 20:24
    
I am no technician, but I think warning signals could also be given before the age of electronics. –  rogermue Jan 28 at 20:33
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1901 seems very early for that doesn't it? What would the warning lights have been on that was in common usage at that time? –  Anush Jan 28 at 20:36
    
If no satisfying etimological explanation is given it is sometimes very helpful to have a situation where the meaning of an idiom gets plausibility. And a blinking signal is an image that makes the idiom plausible. If you have a better explanation or image let me know. –  rogermue Jan 28 at 20:40
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It's a mystery to me. I just find it hard to believe (until further evidence) that a blinking signal was a common enough image in 1901. Would an ordinary person have ever seen one? –  Anush Jan 28 at 20:46

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