A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Etymology of "on the fritz": the usual baloney

March 11, 1994

Dear Cecil:

What is the derivation of the idiom "on the fritz" for something that is not working?

Cecil replies:

If I had an honest atom in my body, I would say "I don't know" and shut up. I don't do this only out of a recognition that if everybody did likewise 90 percent of all human conversation would cease. So let me pass along the following comforting admixture of conjecture and BS.

Noting that the earliest citation of "on the fritz" in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1903, word detectives William and Mary Morris guess that it all started with the comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids, which began around that time. The kids are named Hans and Fritz, who make trouble for the Captain. The Morrises note, "By the end of the strip, their actions had the effect of putting whatever plans the Captain had made permanently on the Fritz.

Stop that groaning. Here's another try from the late John Ciardi: while conceding that the thing at root is "u & u" (unknown and unknowable), he reports having worked as a youth with various jamoches who, having broken some item of equipment, would onomatopoetically remark, "She'sa all pfrrrit," the sound being meant to suggest a "lip-fart," as John delicately puts it. From there to "on the fritz" is a short step.

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