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On the fritz

Posted by Bruce Kahl on May 12, 2005

In Reply to: On the fritz posted by ESC on May 12, 2005

: : I am unable to find any history on the phrase "on the fritz", such as "The television is on the fritz". Used when referring to something not functioning correctly.

: Here is one theory. There's probably a bunch more in the archives -- search under "fritz."

: ON THE FRITZ -- Out of order; broken. Fritz is the German nickname for Friedrich and, during World War I it came to stand for Germans in general. Considering America's distaste for Germany at that time, the expression may have sprung from the notion that if there was wrongdoing, the Germans must have had a hand in it. This is speculation, however, and one must note that 'Webster's Third International Dictionary' says of the expression, 'origin unknown.'" From The Dictionary of Cliches by James Rogers (Ballantine Books, New York, 1985).

From the Word-Detective:

"First, a little background: "on the fritz" first appeared around the turn of the century, the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary being from 1903. This date is important because it fairly conclusively rules out any connection to "Fritz" as an epithet for a German soldier, which appeared later, around the time of the First World War (1914-18).

My parents, in their Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (HarperCollins, 1988), suggested that "on the fritz" might originally have been a reference to Hans and Fritz, the mischievous stars of Rudolph Dirks' "Katzenjammer Kids" comic strip, which first appeared in newspapers in 1897. Hans and Fritz were always fouling things up in the most raucous way imaginable, so this theory earns a "not impossible" rating from me.

The etymologist John Ciardi, however, felt that "on the fritz" might be based on the sort of noise one might make to describe a machine that had ceased functioning -- something like "pfftt" (as in "We were making real progress until the doohickey went pfftt."). Again, this explanation is not impossible, and leads to my own theory.

My theory (drum roll, please) is that "on the fritz" comes from the sound made by an electrical mechanism as it shorts or burns out. I was an enthusiastic (and reckless) electronic experimenter in my youth, and my attempts to concoct devices ranging from shortwave radios to portable death rays almost invariably ended with a large puff of smoke and a loud "fritz!" sound. Hey, it works for me, which is more than that darn death ray ever did. "