Yubba Dubba Duck!
Dear Word Detective: My wife was reading an ad and noticed that there was going to be a “Blow Out Sale,” which got her thinking, what is a “Blow Out Sale”? When did “blow out” become a term to mean “big” or “extravagant”? I, of course, pondered the question and thought of you. Do you have any clues? Should we go to the “Blow Out Light Bulb Sale”? — Rich Harrington.
Good question. I’d have answered it sooner, but I was recovering after the ruckus at MondoMegaStuff on Black Friday. I felt sorry for the poor schmucks guarding the doors when that crowd stepped on them, of course, but you don’t get … whatever it was I bought … by hanging back like a wuss. What did I buy, anyway? I must have bought something, right? Anyway, I’ll bet it’s awesome, and I just know it’s making me happy. And I’ll bet you don’t have one. Wuss.
I have no doubt that somewhere out there in Consumption Nation there’s a Blow Out Light Bulb Sale in progress, probably just a few feet from the big “Roll Back!” sign above the bowling balls. Personally, I can’t help thinking about the tires on our car when I hear “blow out,” which is not surprising because I’ve gone through life convinced that someday all four wheels would fall off while we’re tooling down the freeway. Hey, it happened to Fred Flintstone almost every week.
“Blow out” in the sense you noticed is a use of the noun “blow out” (also “blow-out” and “blowout”) as an adjective. The noun “blow-out” (the form preferred by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)) is based on the verb “to blow,” which came to us from Germanic roots via the Old English “blawan,” meaning generally “to move air, to kindle, to breathe.”
As you can imagine, a verb having to do with everything from starting a fire to simply breathing subsequently spawned dozens of subsidiary meanings, but the one that underlies the various senses of “blow-out” is that of “to expel air forcefully or explosively.” Thus the use of “blow-out” to mean “a catastrophic burst in a rubber tire,” the most notable corollary of which (if you’re lucky) is that your tire no longer holds air and you have to call the AAA. This sense of “blow-out” first appeared in print in 1908 and shows, sadly, no sign of becoming obsolete anytime soon. The same sense of “explosive escape and failure” is found in “blow-out” in a number of mechanical contexts, lately most notably meaning “A rapid, uncontrolled uprush of fluid from an oil well.” This sense first appeared in 1916. When we say that a light bulb “blows out,” we’re figuratively using a sense of “to blow” dating back to the 14th century meaning “to extinguish (a flame) by a current of air.”
Interestingly, one of the earliest printed examples of “blow-out” comes from 1825, when it was used to mean “quarrel, disturbance, fight,” a sense now mostly obsolete, having been replaced by “blow up.”
At about the same time (1823), however, “blow-out” appeared with the far more congenial meaning of “A dinner, supper, or other entertainment for which an abundant supply of food and drink is provided or at which it is consumed” (OED) (“They had a grand blow-out, and … drank in the forecastle, a barrel of gin,” Two Years Before the Mast, Dana, 1840). The logic behind this use of “blow-out” is that of excess without limits, as if a richly-stocked pantry had been completely (and, metaphorically, explosively) emptied for one feast. This “blow-out” is very much still in use today, and appears to be the sense behind “blow-out sale,” an “event” offering a wealth of goodies at insanely low prices.
Two other, more modern, uses of “blow-out” are worth mentioning because the second may feed into “blow-out sale” a bit. In the 1920s, blow-out” appeared as US slang meaning “a total failure; a fiasco or debacle” (“I walk over … knowing full well what it’s like to be in his shoes, facing a financial blowout, gobsmacked by your own bovine stupidity,” 2004). But for every loser there is a winner, and by the 1930s, this “failure” sense had produced its opposite, the use of “blow-out” to mean a sweeping and dramatic victory, especially in sports or politics (“The Tigers … lost a total of seven games — four by blowouts and three by slim margins,” 1991). In a sports-obsessed nation like the US, I suspect that this “stunning victory” sense also lurks behind “blow-out sale.”