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?

  • 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 '14 at 21:29
  • @Gnawme Well that would be a massive error by the OED if you are right! – Anush Jan 28 '14 at 21:32
  • No, it is indeed "on the blink" – anongoodnurse Jan 29 '14 at 0:35
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    Of course, OED stating what was actually written can't account for editorial errors or other typos...after all, The London Times, describing Queen Victoria traversing the Menai Bridge, announced in one headline, “THE QUEEN HERSELF PISSED GRACIOUSLY OVER THE MAGNIFICENT EDIFICE.” but it would be another mistake to use that to redefine "pissed" I've certainly never seen any other reference of "on the blink" as related to business failure.... – Michael Broughton Jul 7 '16 at 19:44

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.

  • 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 '14 at 21:37
  • Knowing the limitations of Ngrams, it appears that "on the blink" came into usage ca. 1900s. – anongoodnurse Jan 28 '14 at 21:42

Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013) has this entry for "on the blink":

on the blink Also on the bum or fritz. Malfunctioning, out of order, broken, as in The TV was on the blink again, or You drive—our car's on the bum. The first of these slangy expressions dates from the late 1800s and possibly alludes to an electric light that flickers on and off ("blinks"); the second, from the same period, possibly is derived from bum in the sense of "a contemptible person"; the third, fritz, dating from about 1900, is of unknown origin.

In 1886, a demonstration project in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, had delivered electric lighting to a 4,000-foot stretch of the town's main street from a 500-volt AC source, so attributing "on the blink" to a flickering electric light is not necessarily anachronistic if the idiom came into use in the late 1800s, as Ammer says it did.

The oldest instance of "on the blink" in the relevant sense that I've been able to find is from 1896, antedating the OED's earliest citation (mentioned in the OP's question) by five years. From "Spoiled the 'Snap'," in the San Francisco [California] Call (August 23, 1896):

"One day George [a deputy clerk at "the office of the justice clerk" at San Francisco City Hall] thumped the button [on the office's telephone] and waited for Central to do the rest, but there was a hitch somewhere, and in spite of the fact that he had contributed nothing to the support of the corporation [that is, the central telephone exchange] he got impatient.

"He banged the hook for a while and when Central answered said:

"'Say, Central, this machine is on the blink.'

"'What's the matter?' asked Central. "'That's what I want to know,' said George. 'I guess she must be out of order.'

"He got his call and thought no more of the matter. The next day a repairer came from the telephone office, took out our soft snap and put in one that can't be fooled into deceiving Central. No more free messages."

Clearly the phrase "on the blink" is already being used idiomatically in this early instance.


Electricity does pre-date 1901, and early light bulbs would blink before they died. This seems like a very reasonable explanation, although I have zero evidence to back that up.


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 '14 at 20:24
  • I am no technician, but I think warning signals could also be given before the age of electronics. – rogermue Jan 28 '14 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 '14 at 20:36
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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 '14 at 20:46
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    The only way I can see it coming from an electrical device, in that era, would be in the context of a light bulb flickering when it's about to go out. – Hot Licks May 22 '15 at 11:43

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