freeze, on the friz, on the fritz--and Santa 1902

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Sun Aug 31 13:18:01 UTC 2014

Previously it was shown that the phrase has two spellings--on the fritz and on the friz--and two pronunciations, rhyming with "is" and with "wits." DARE, EDD, and OED show friz as a dialect and/or vulgar form of freeze. DARE give a sense of freeze as "to intimidate; to snub," with an example from 1876. Webster's New World has "freeze out [Colloq.] to keep out or force out by a cold manner, competition, etc." (OED and especially HDAS provide many quotations, though neither notes the two spellings nor the two pronunciations.) Apparently not only electrical appliances are irrelevant in the early uses (becoming associated only later), but also apparently irrelevant is the personal name Fritz.

The OED June 2014 revision antedates "on the fritz" to Aug. 25, 1900. That quote is from a short play written by 51,682, a prisoner at Sing Sing. Maximus Actorius, "an actor who sees things," speaks a mishmash of Shakespearean English; Umpty Ump Mike replies: "Say Max, I like you all right, but I want to give you a pointer....Now all dis kind of talk is on de fritz, see?"--in effect Mike wants to freeze it out.

The same publication edited at Sing Sing, The Star of Hope, Saturday, August 25, 1902 p. 168 col. 3 has a usage that has been noted before here and in newspaper columns in snippet form, though inaccurately, lacking a word [any], and lacking context. (I thank Joanne Despres of Merriam-Webster for the reference.) Here is one fifth of the poem "Suppose" by 23,669 of Auburn NY Prison:

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?

Paradoxically, lack of freezing would freeze Santa out of work.

Some resist being frozen out. E.g, Fleming DuBignon, in The Atlanta Constitution, April 14, 1896 p.4 article (from Cuthbert) headlined "Refused To Be 'Friz.'"

"There is an evident desire among the administration followers in Georgia to freeze Flem DuBignon out of the race for senate....But the Hon. Flem prefers not to freeze...."


"Deep breathing is the thing for you if you are on the friz;

It drives away the devils blue and sharpens up the wits;...."

--Washington Herald

(Feb. 5, 1908 Trenton [NJ] Evening Times p. 6. col. 3 America's Historic Newspapers)

Stephen Goranson

The American Dialect Society -

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