on the fritz

“On the fritz” originated in the early 1900s, meaning “out of order,” or “in bad condition,” or “defective,” referring to the malfunctioning of an appliance.

I might say, “the computer is on the fritz again.” My mother, who was born in Britain, would have said, “on the blink.” Another synonym is “on the bum.”

“On the blink” may allude to an electric light that flickers on and off.  “On the bum” may be derived from bum in the sense of “a contemptible person.”

One theory for the origin of “on the fritz” is this: Fritz is the German nickname for Friedrich and, during World War I, it was used to refer to Germans in general. Considering the war against Germany at that time, the expression may have sprung from the idea that if there was wrongdoing, the Germans must have had a hand in it. 

This is only a guess, however, and Webster’s Third International Dictionary says of the expression, “origin unknown.” And, in fact, the nickname Fritz didn’t appear until 1914, years after the phrase “on the fritz” was first noted.

The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, however, suggests that the phrase may nevertheless have come from someone called Fritz — in the comic strip called The Katzenjammer Kids. In this series, two youngsters called Hans and Fritz got up to some wild capers, messing things up and putting the plans of other members of the comic strip community on the fritz. The strip appeared in newspapers from 1897 onwards, which fits with “early 1900s.” But this idea is another guess.

The phrase could be applied to many things. For example, when the cat pries me out of bed at 5:30 a.m., it would be accurate to say my brain and body are on the fritz. They recover fairly rapidly but the said cat knows when to get out of the way!

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