Q Since my first name is Fritz, I’ve always wondered where the expression “on the fritz” came from. Can you enlighten me? – F.N., Providence, R.I.

A: Unfortunately, no one is really sure where “on the fritz” originated. Most of us know that it means “in a state of disorder or disrepair.” The first evidence of the phrase that we have on file was found in a poem dated 1902: “Would Santa Claus be on the ‘fritz’ / If we never had snow?”

There are at least three theories about the origin of this use of “fritz.” The first is that this “fritz” may have come from the derogatory nickname “Fritz” used to refer to a German soldier. However, this use is not documented until 1915, more than a decade after “on the fritz” first appeared. It is possible that the nickname may have been in spoken use earlier, but we have no proof of that.

A second theory is that the phrase sprang out of the popularity of the early comic strip called “The Katzenjammer Kids” or “The Captain and the Kids,” which featured a mischievous youngster named Fritz. However, the Sunday page of this comic strip did not run until 1914 – again too late to account for the 1902 origin of “on the fritz.”

Yet another explanation – or perhaps we should say wild guess – is that “fritz” is an alteration of “fritter,” a verb that means “to break into fragments” or a noun that means “fragment, shred.” “Fritter” is old enough to considerably predate “on the fritz,” but the connection is extremely weak. If there were a real relationship between the two, we might expect to see “on the fritter” or a similar construction before “on the fritz” developed, but nothing like that has ever been recorded.

Q Recently I heard someone use “knuckle down” to mean “apply oneself.” I was about to ask if they meant “buckle down,” but I kept my mouth shut, knowing how elusive idioms can be. Was this person using a known expression? – B.T., St. Paul, Minn.

A: “Knuckle down,” as in “Let’s knuckle down and finish this,” has been known since at least the 1860s, for we find it in our unabridged dictionary of 1864 defined as “to apply oneself earnestly or vigorously.” The expression may have derived from the game of marbles. In many versions of the game, the player must “knuckle down” while shooting, that is, keep at least one knuckle touching the ground. Knuckling down at marbles goes way back – little boys knew what it meant back in the first half of the 18th century. The attention and diligence required to keep the hand in place may have led to the expression’s transfer of meaning to broader applications.

“Buckle down,” on the other hand, actually started out in the 16th century as “buckle to.” Edmund Burke used this version in the 18th century: “I have shook off idleness and begun to buckle to.” Sometimes it also appeared as “buckle in.” The figurative “buckle” is thought to allude to the buckling of armor in preparation for a contest or battle. (Armor really was buckled, in case you are in doubt; we read of the buckling of helmets in Chaucer.)

It is possible that the “down” was later added to “buckle” in imitation of the “down” in “knuckle down.” In any case, “buckle down” first appears in print in a magazine in 1865, used just as we would today: “If he would only buckle down to serious study.”

Interestingly, there is another parallel employment of “knuckle” and “buckle” in two expressions that mean “yield” or “submit”: “He knuckled under and conceded defeat” and “He finally buckled under pressure.”

This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster’s Wordwatch, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, Mass. 01102.


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