Where Does the Phrase “Draw a Blank” Come From?

I can't remember what I was going to say, so why does that "draw a blank?"

Come again?

Have you ever been in a situation where you’re out for a walk and come across a new neighbor but you can’t quite remember their name? Or if you’re sitting in class and the teacher calls on you to answer a question, and you do actually know the answer, but you can’t remember what it is? It’s so frustrating when this happens, yet it seems to happen more often than you may like. This is what happens when you draw a blank. According to Merriam Webster, the idiom “draw a blank” means “to fail to gain a desired object (such as information sought)” as well as “to be unable to think of something.” But what is an idiom and where did “draw a blank” come from? Here are the origins of 14 commonly used phrases.

What’s an idiom?

A definition is always good when defining new things. An idiom, according to Dictionary.com, is “an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements, as kick the bucket or hang one’s head, or from the general grammatical rules of a language, as the table round for the round table, and that is not a constituent of a larger expression of like characteristics.” A popular idiom like beat around the bush means to avoid something, like a person or situation. Another popular idiom is to judge a book by its cover, meaning to focus on what something looks like on the outside. Here are 9 common sayings that don’t actually make any sense.

Where does “draw a blank” come from?

Even though “draw a blank” is still used in modern language, did you know it’s been around for hundreds of years? In fact, according to English Language Centres, “draw a blank” originated in Tudor England when Queen Elizabeth I set up the first national lottery in 1567. If you’ve ever participated in a lottery before, then you know where this is going. Here 13 things modern lotto winners won’t tell you.

For this lottery, there were two pots. One pot contained slips of paper with the names of all of the participants. The other pot contained the same number of slips, only some bits of paper had prizes written on them while others had nothing written on them and were blank. One slip of paper was pulled from each pot at the exact same time and if the person matched with a prize, then they would win the prize. However, if the person’s name was drawn with a piece of paper with no writing, then they wouldn’t win anything. Thus, they were unsuccessful and that person “drew a blank.” Here are 50 things you didn’t know about the British royal family.

Modern uses

Even though the idiom “draw a blank” is from the 16th century, it’s still in use hundreds of years later. Lotteries are still popular in pop culture today, and if you’ve entered in raffles or lotteries, you know the sheer joy of winning a prize and the deflated defeat of not winning anything and “drawing a blank.” The next time you don’t remember an acquaintance’s name (even though you do actually know it), or that actor in the movie you just saw, you can take comfort in knowing that while you may not remember the answer, now you know what “drawing a blank” actually means and where it came from. Next, do you know what the saying “Close, but no cigar” really means?

Madeline Wahl
Madeline Wahl is a Digital Associate Editor/Writer at RD.com. Previously, she worked for HuffPost and Golf Channel. Her writing has appeared on HuffPost, Red Magazine, McSweeney's, Pink Pangea, The Mighty, and Yahoo Lifestyle, among others. More of her work can be found on her website: www.madelinehwahl.com