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Yesterday's print New York Times had this headline for a story about activists trying to persuade Senator Susan Collins of Maine to vote against the tax bill now before Congress (the online headline is "Last-Ditch Effort to Sway Senator on Tax Bill Involves Personal Pleas"):

Personal Pleas to Senator on the Bubble

The usage of "on the bubble" here struck me as odd. Evidently the notion that Senator Collins is "on the bubble" is connected to her being undecided about whether to vote for the tax bill.

But the more common idiomatic use of "on the bubble" is to convey the sense of a thing, person, or group whose fate is undecided. This is the sense indicated in the Oxford Dictionaries Online entry for the term "on the bubble":

on the bubble informal (of a sports player or team) occupying the last qualifying position on a team or for a tournament, and liable to be replaced by another.

'he's never lived up to his high selection, and is on the bubble for a roster spot'

figurative 'several of last year's new TV shows are on the bubble'

I was somewhat surprised to discover, however, that Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2012) has no entry for "on the bubble." In fact I haven't been able to find any serious dictionary information on how old the idiom is and where it originated.

I first encountered "on the bubble" in the context of sports reporting. Especially common in U.S. usage are references to college basketball teams "on the bubble." Such teams did not earn automatic inclusion in the end-of-season Division I playoff tournament by winning their conference championship and did not compile a strong enough record over the season to be sure to be selected as at-large entrants into the tournament; as a result, they are in danger of not being selected to play in the tournament—and yet their season's play was good enough to give them some realistic hope of being selected. Hence their status "on the bubble." A typical but rather early example appears in "The MAC Tournament: Showdown at Toledo 6 seconds from the title Flashes' NIT Dreams Vanish," in the Daily Kent [Ohio] Stater (March 10, 1987):

The biggest upset of all saw North Carolina State grab an NCAA [tournament] spot with their win over North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. These tournament upsets forced the NCAA to take two or more teams from a weaker conference, or force the team with the best record in a weak conference into the NIT [the National Invitational Tournament, nowadays a sort of consolation event for good teams not invited to play in the NCAA tournament].

Thus the number of spots available to a team on the "bubble," like KSU, was limited.

And a bit more than three weeks later, from "Stanford Plays Rare Contests at Roble," in the Stanford [California] Daily (April 3, 1987):

The Cardinal, with its 6-6 conference record, is now on the bubble — the No. 5 position in the Western Intercollegiate Volleyball Association. If it can maintain this ranking, Stanford will be assured a spot in the regional playoffs. However, No. 8 Long Beach and No. 10 Northridge will try to prevent the Cardinal from keeping its position.

As the term "on the bubble" became more common, people treated "the bubble" as though it were a kind of holding tank for teams whose prospects for post-regular-season play were uncertain. Perhaps a dozen teams were considered to be on the bubble, vying for perhaps four to six playoff slots. Notice that this use of "on the bubble" conflicts with the ODO definition, which asserts that a team "on the bubble" is currently occupies one of the last qualifying positions for a tournament; I am not convinced that the ODO definition was ever accurate, and it certainly is not accurate today. Consider this explanation of the term in "Time to Burst Some 'Bubble' Teams," in the [Washington, D.C.] American [University] Eagle (February 13, 1989):

It's "bubble" time in the NCAA.

February is the time when college basketball commentators begin referring to certain teams as being on the "bubble." What that means is they are borderline candidates for NCAA tournament bids.

If these teams do not win their conference tournaments, they will be thrown into the sizable at-large pool. Some teams will get picked, some will not. In this weeks column, we register our opinions on some of these bubble teams.

So it isn't that a team on the bubble would probably receive an invitation to the tournament if the season ended today. It's that the team's season so far has been good enough to give them hope of making the tournament even if they don't win their conference championship. And saying that the various contending teams are "on the bubble" implies that they are on the same bubble, not that each is on a bubble of its own—and this in turn seems to point away from a metaphor in which the bubble bursts for some and remains solid for others; it was more as though some teams on the bubble reached the tournament for others, which can then get off their bubble successfully.

"On the bubble" invites various metaphorical readings. One involves riding on fragile soap bubble and hoping to reach one's destination before the bubble bursts. Another (often used in boom-and-bust economic scenarios) suggests something similar to an expanding bubblegum bubble, which is bound to pop sooner or later. A third refers the stage of heated water just prior to boiling; numerous instances of "on the bubble" in this figurative sense appear in newspaper articles from the late 1800s forward. A fourth possibility is that "on the bubble" may invoke the bubble in a level gauge, suggesting that, when something is properly balanced horizontally, it is both "on the level" and "on the bubble." It is not clear to me, however, that any of these interpretations explains the origin of "on the bubble" in the relevant sense.

More-recent figurative use of "on the bubble takes us far afield from sporting contexts, to situations where the expression has the more generalized meaning "being in a situation or status with an uncertain outcome." For example, one of the few times that "on the bubble" has appeared in a question or answer at English Language & Usage is in this quotation from R-Tastic, "DJing Discussion" on the Serato website (January 4, 2017), cited in a question by RaceYouAnytime about the origin of the musical slang term banger:

Here's some of the current bangers from the last 1-2 months that I've seen work at the club, along with some that are on the bubble and might get big.....

Nevertheless, I have never seen it applied to a person who hasn't decided which of two options to choose, as in the case of Senator Collins. The normal term to describe a person who is in that situation would be "on the fence," I think.


I have several questions about the expression "on the bubble" in the idiomatic sense that became familiar in sports lingo:

  1. Where and when did the this sense of the expression originate?

  2. What did the expression mean when it emerged in this idiomatic form? Was the definition that Oxford Dictionaries Online gives ever the predominant meaning of the idiom?

  3. Why "on the bubble" instead of "on a bubble"?

  4. Is the New York Times's use of "on the bubble" to mean essentially "on the fence" an idiosyncratic one-off usage, or has the expression appeared in other publications with that same meaning?

  • The Ngram seems to indicate it goes way back (AmE) to the 1800s.books.google.com/ngrams/… – Nigel J Dec 17 '17 at 16:22
  • @NigelJ - from the question above: “A third refers the stage of heated water just prior to boiling; numerous instances of "on the bubble" numerous instances of "on the bubble" in this figurative sense appear in newspaper articles from the late 1800s forward. – user240918 Dec 17 '17 at 16:37
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    'On the bubble' is unfamiliar to me in a non-metaphorical way. 'On the boil' is what I am familiar with. – Nigel J Dec 17 '17 at 16:42
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Question 1)

Just a quick hint from the Phrase Finder. The expression apparently originated in the world of car racing in the ‘70s, specifically in the context of Indianapolis 500 race:

On the bubble:

This American expression seems to have originated in the car racing community, in particular the aficionados of the Indianapolis 500 race. The first citation I can find is from a report on the 1970 running of that race, in The Lima News, May 1970:

  • "On the 'bubble' is rookie Steve Krisiloff whose 162.448 m.p.h. was the slowest qualifying speed last weekend. With only six spots open, Krisiloff's machine would be ousted if seven cars qualified at a faster speed this week end."

The question is of course, why 'bubble'? The most popular theory relates to the Indy 500 and suggests that if a driver were about to qualify and then someone did a better time and pushed him down the rankings into the non-qualifiers then dreams of qualification would be dashed and his bubble would be burst.

Question 2)

If the car racing theory is correct, the original meaning of the figurative sense of “on the bubble” is the one suggested by the ODO. The expression conveys a sense of uncertainty and its usage may have evolved to the more current and general one as suggested by the Collins Dictionary cited below.

As noted in the Lexmaniac

Its meaning seemed relatively straightforward, but it is used several different ways, most of which seem to coalesce around a state of uncertainty, of not knowing what’s in and what’s out.

Question 3)

As suggested from the following source the expression might come from “sit on the bubble” from which “on the bubble” but, unluckily, it does not provide further details:

on the bubble (of a sports player or team) occupying the last qualifying position in a team or for a tournament, and liable to be replaced by another. North American informal.

This expression comes from sit on the bubble , with the implication that the bubble may burst.

Question 4)

I think the usage and meaning expressed in the New York Times is well defined by the Collins Dictionary:

On the bubble (informal US):

in a situation in which the outcome is uncertain but already in the process of being determined or decided.

also as noted in the Lexmaniac:

“DR. EMMETT C. MURPHY defines “on-the-bubble behavior” as “any behavior that can compromise the achievement of an organization’s mission,” which is even more specialized, not to say idiosyncratic. Well then, why should “on the bubble” mean “on the threshold” or “on the brink” or “waiting to have one’s fate decided”? Apparently no one knows.

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    I had no idea of the phrase's early use in auto racing, but it may be the key to what were, for me, the main mysteries about the phrases origin and original meaning. Thanks for a great answer! – Sven Yargs Dec 17 '17 at 17:15

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