"On the fritz" at Sing Sing

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[This is a guest post by Stephen Goranson.]

Though it's generally agreed that "on the fritz" means, more or less, "in an unsatisfactory or defective state or condition" (Oxford English Dictionary), there is no agreement on its etymology. Some currently associate "fritz" with a sound from a malfunctioning electric machine, but the early uses of the phrase did not apply to machines but to persons. Others, including OED, guess that, somehow, the German name Fritz was involved. But several early usages of the phrase were spelled as "on the friz"; and both "on the friz" and "on the fritz" were often spelled without any capital F. Rather than a German name or a mechanical effusion, I suggest, the origin used dialect forms of the verb "freeze," as being frozen up or frozen out were negative. Such forms are well-attested in the Dictionary of American Regional English and in U.S. newspapers of the 1890s.

And a poem that prisoner number 23,669 contributed in 1902 to the "Star of Hope" (a prison newspaper published at Sing Sing) supports this hypothesis.

First, here's a possible early faint precursor to the phrase from "Jimmy the Bunco's Thanksgiving Dinner," New York Herald, Nov. 20, 1892. Jimmy was offered lemonade "and friz." The story continued: "I dunno' as I cares on the friz, murmured the 'Bunco' thoughtfully. The word bore too close a resemblance to his general state of being." Being "on the friz" was undesirable.

In the 1902 poem, titled "Suppose" (Star of Hope, vol 4 [November 1902] no. 16, p. 253 col. 3; I thank Joanne Despres of Merriam-Webster for the reference) our poet imagines many extraordinary circumstances. Here's the third of five verses:

What would the little acorn do
If it had no place to grow?
Would Santa Claus be on the "fritz"
If we never had any snow?

Apparently, the acorn would not be able to grow and Santa would be unable to deliver: Santa ironically out of work on the fritz in his sleigh given the lack of frozen stuff.

If that makes sense, it may follow that the meaning of the phrase was lost–the etymology itself became on the fritz–largely because the dialect versions of freeze and frozen faded.

The whole poem:


  1. jin defang said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 12:17 pm

    I'd always assumed it comes from "frisson," which may itself derive from freezing, as in freeze up

  2. Kate Gladstone said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 12:45 pm

    The understanding of “friz” as “frozen” may be supported by the 1940s product “Kraft FRIZZ,” which was a frozen-dessert mix: http://www.answers.com/Q/FAQ/2856

    Note also “It snow, then it friz” in a diary kept during 1846-1849: http://www.wyandotte-nation.org/culture/history/published/provisional-government/journal1/
    (The phrase — near the end of entry 220 — is enclosed in quotation-marks in the original, though without any attribution: suggesting that it was well-known and proverbial.)

    Much closer to our own time, a poem by A. A. Milne includes the line “I wouldn’t much mind if it snowed or friz”: https://allpoetry.com/Furry-Bear

    Also, see the numerous “friz” attestations here: https://www.google.com/search?q=if+it+snew+or+friz&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwitgJrPtfbZAhVBuFMKHSY8C-UQgwMIJQ&biw=704&bih=643&dpr=2
    One, early on the list (and of particular interest) has: “It blew and snew, and then it thew, and now, by jing, it’s friz.”

  3. Ross Presser said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 12:51 pm

    I see that today's guest poster discussed this in 2014 on [ADS-L]:

  4. MattF said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 2:01 pm

    Although the poet was as likely to have been suffering from the same etymological misconceptions as anyone else who got the derivation wrong. I do wonder how one identifies the 'right' etymology when a word has no obvious meaning.

  5. Bob Ladd said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 2:57 pm

    Not relevant to the linguistic question, but however notorious Sing Sing may once have been, there's more than one prison in New York State. Was "Star of Hope" a prison newspaper at Sing Sing or Auburn? If Sing Sing, why is the author identified as "AUBURN 23,669"?

  6. Ricardo said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 4:54 pm

    What is the third line of the poem actually asking? As I read it, it asks, 'Who would bury the bodies of those who died eating ginger cakes?'

  7. Larry Goldsmith said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 5:04 pm

    Bob Ladd:
    From the issue of 16 December 1904: "Thus on April 23, 1800, the first issue of the 'Star of Hope' appeared, consisting of eight pages, contributed solely by the prisoners of Sing-Sing prison. So rapid was the success of the paper that in July the same year, it was enlarged to sixteen pages, and the privilege of contributing extended to two other prisons, Auburn and Clinton, both of New York State, and in December 1900 the New Reformatory at Naponoch was added to the roll, bringing up the circulation to 5,000 copies, divided among the four prisons mentioned."

  8. Andrew Usher said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 5:04 pm

    But the question still is how it mutated from 'friz' (obviously /z/) to 'fritz' (/ts/). At least the spelling of the latter suggests German influence, as English would require 'frits'.

    Likely, too, the perceived onomatopeia of 'fritz' influenced its current meaning, as those examples hardly suggest it.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  9. Bob Ladd said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 5:36 pm

    @Larry Goldsmith: Thanks!

  10. Viseguy said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 7:29 pm

    Since my shoulder's been on the fritz, this weekend I looked up my orthopedic surgeon, whose website informs me that he treats a condition called "frozen shoulder". Which begs the question, how did Dr. Liberman acquire his diagnostic powers? :D

  11. John Laviolette said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 8:25 pm

    When I read this post, my first thought was "didn't I read a limerick that also used `friz` to mean `frozen`?" And the answer is "yes", but I didn't realize it was by Rudyard Kipling.

    THERE was a small boy of Quebec,  
    Who was buried in snow to his neck;  
    When they said. “Are you friz?”  
    He replied, “Yes, I is—  
    But we don’t call this cold in Quebec."

  12. Adrian said,

    March 18, 2018 @ 11:47 pm

    "I do wonder how one identifies the 'right' etymology when a word has no obvious meaning." Welcome to the world of place-name studies… The answer, of course, is one traces the word back as far as one can, and then see if/how the earliest spellings/pronunciations fit in the context.

    "But the question still is how it mutated from 'friz' (obviously /z/) to 'fritz' (/ts/)." I'd say a combination of euphony and "folk etymology". (Possibly also false attribution, e.g. how chorizo is mispronounced /choritso/.) It's often more surprising if a word's pronunciation stays constant than if it changes, the way that words are buffeted on the sea of language.

  13. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 9:05 am

    I've never heard "chorizo … mispronounced /choritso/". But it's normal to pronounce the prefix schizo- as "skitso" in terms related to psychiatry (though not biology or geology). I would guess that this due to the influence of German-speaking psychiatrists, but that English-speakers hesitated to go all the way and pronounce it as "shitso".

  14. Brett said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 1:14 pm

    @Coby Lubliner: I've certainly heard schizo- pronounced the "German" way in biological contexts as well, especially in schizomycophyta.

  15. nbm said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 1:55 pm

    There was a young maid of Quebec / Who was buried in snow to her neck; / When they asked, was she friz? / She replied, "Yes, I is, / But we don't call this cold in Quebec!"

  16. Topher Cooper said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 3:47 pm

    A tangent —

    The poem was naggingly familiar, in structure though not in specific content, so I did some searching,. I found what I was thinking of:

    If all the world were apple pie,
    —And all the sea were ink,
    And all the trees were bread and cheese,
    —What should we have to drink?

    It seems to be a widespread childrens' rhyme, attributed to various sources and with various added verses (which mostly seem to be from somewhere else, ill-fit with the first in structure and scansion.

    The oldest clear citation of the form (though without the first line) that ten or fifteen minutes of searching Google got was:

    If all the world were paper,
    And all the sea were inke;
    If all the trees were bread and cheese,
    How should we do for drinke?

    This is attributed to "John Mennes and James Smiths Facetiae*, published in or after 1658". Further down the page the apple pie version is attributed to "Gamer Gurton’s Garland (1810)".

    At the very end he sites a non-poetic source: the recorded sayings of Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai. He was an important figure in Jewish Rabbinic history, and he died in 90 CE (Common Era). "When [his students] asked him whether there were any limits to his wisdom, the Rabbi replied cryptically.

    “If all the skies were parchment, and if all the oceans ink, and the wood of all the trees were filed down to pens, it would hardly suffice to imprint, not my wisdom of my teachers.” (Which seems to have gotten mangled somewhat at some point).


  17. Rubrick said,

    March 19, 2018 @ 7:25 pm

    Any possible connection to "frizzy", the state of hair?

  18. David Marjanović said,

    March 23, 2018 @ 6:26 am

    *lightbulb moment*

    But the question still is how it mutated from 'friz' (obviously /z/) to 'fritz' (/ts/). At least the spelling of the latter suggests German influence, as English would require 'frits'.

    That probably just means somebody misinterpreted friz as a misspelling of Fritz, then pronounced it accordingly, and then interpreted the meaning based on the new sound.

    Any possible connection to "frizzy", the state of hair?

    That seems to have been interpreted into it.

  19. marie-lucie said,

    March 23, 2018 @ 9:35 pm

    "frisson," which may itself derive from freezing, as in freeze up

    Le frisson< has nothing to do with freezing, it is a French word. The verb frissonner means 'to shudder' (from cold, fear, or other negative emotion), and un frisson is a single occurrence of shuddering.

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