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On the fritz

Q From Dan Leneker: I am looking into how the expression on the fritz came about. Please help.

A I’d like to, but most dictionaries just say, very cautiously and flatly, “origin unknown”, and I can’t do much to improve on that verdict.

The phrase is now a common American expression meaning that some mechanism is malfunctioning or broken: “The washing machine’s on the fritz again” (the British and Australian equivalent would be on the blink). 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.

Some people, especially the late John Ciardi, the American poet and writer on words, 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.

Others feel it must be connected with Fritz, the nickname for a German soldier. It’s a seductive idea. There’s one problem, though — that nickname didn’t really start to appear until World War One, about 1914, long after the saying had been coined.

William and Mary Morris, in the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, suggest that it may nevertheless have come from someone called Fritz — in the comic strip called The Katzenjammer Kids. In this two youngsters called Hans and Fritz got up to some awful capers, fouling things up and definitely putting the plans of other members of the strip community on the Fritz. The strip appeared in newspapers from 1897 onwards, so the dates fit rather nicely. But there’s no evidence that confirms it so far as I know. There’s also the key question: why don’t we talk about being on the Hans?

As is so often, Mr Leneker, 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.

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Page created 11 Aug 2001