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shameless pleading

Brink

That’s all, folks.

Dear Word Detective:  I am looking for the origin of the phrase “on the brink of disaster.” Can you help? — Dorothy.

Brink of disaster? Eve of destruction? End of Days? The Big Kablooey? What the noted futurologist Walter Mitty called the Pocketa-pocketa-pocalypse?

Why do you ask? Seriously, why is everybody suddenly fixated on the End of the World as We Know It (everybody except, of course, r.e.m. (r.i.p.) and a few million Mayans)? We went to the movies a while back and saw a film, called Take Shelter, about a guy in small-town Ohio who begins to see weird, scary things in the sky and decides to prepare for The End. Thing is, his Ohio small town was a dead ringer for our Ohio small town, right down to ugly wood paneling in the Lions Club, and nothing he saw in the sky struck me as all that unusual out here, all of which worried me. I guess when the zeitgeist starts rattling the shutters it’s time to stock up on freeze-dried Twinkies and firewood.

Today we use the word “brink” almost entirely in contexts where there is imminent danger of something bad happening (current headlines on Google News include “The week that Europe stumbled to the brink of disaster,” “US and China on brink of trade war over solar industry,” and “Billy Crystal Brings Oscars Back From the Brink”). But ’twas not always so.

When “brink” first appeared in English around 1300 (from Germanic roots meaning “edge of a field, grass-land, side of a hill”), it meant either “bank of a river, edge of the sea, etc.” or “the edge of a steep place, especially one might fall into, such a chasm, pit, canyon, etc.” A “brink,” in other words, could be simply the restful bank of a slowly moving river. “Brink” was also used to mean the edge or border of anything, even the brim of a cup or hat.

But it was that second “look out below” sense that produced, around 1600, the figurative use of “brink” to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says, “The very verge of some state, time, event, or action: now especially in the phrases ‘on,’ ‘to,’ ‘from the brink of’, a discovery, ruin, destruction, death, eternity, anarchy, revolution, absurdity, etc.”

While “brink” is used today in a few positive senses, such as “brink of a scientific breakthrough” or “brink of stardom,” the word still carries those “standing at the edge of the cliff” overtones. Thus the use of “brink” alone, without a prepositional phrase such as “of success” or the like, is almost invariably in the negative sense; one can only imagine what would happen to the Oscars if Billy Crystal had to cancel, but it doesn’t sound good.

This use of “brink” with an assumed connotation of a bad possible outcome produced, in the 1950s, the term “brinkmanship,” defined by the OED as “the art of advancing to the very brink of war but not engaging in it.” Since the potential “war” in question at that time was a full-on nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, “brinkmanship” was a very dangerous game to play (“He [Adlai Stevenson] derided the Secretary [of Defense, J. F. Dulles] for ‘boasting of his brinkmanship — the art of bringing us to the edge of the nuclear abyss’,” NY Times, 2/26/56).

Since phrases involving something or someone “on the brink” of some bad thing or another have been common for more than 400 years at this point, and since “disaster” (from the Latin “dis,” unfavorable, plus “astrum,” star, giving us literally “ill-starred”) is just about that old in English, the chances of pinpointing the first use of “brink of disaster” are nil. On the bright side, after all the various “brinks” humanity has faced, we’re still here to worry about the Oscars and their brink, whatever it may be.

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