A while back, when Ned Deily was visiting me, my iTunes produced an album of Joshua Bell playing Fritz Kreisler violin music, and Ned joked about my computer being on the fritz — and we both wondered about the source of the slang idiom. It turns out that it’s not very old — the OED‘s first cite is from 1903 — but is nevertheless of unknown origin, and the etymologies that come first to mind are very unlikely.
Here’s Michael Quinion in World Wide Words of 8/11/01:
QFrom Dan Leneker: I am looking into how the expression on the fritz came about. Please help.
A I’d like to, but most dictionaries just say, very cautiously and flatly, “origin unknown”, and I can’t do much to improve on that verdict.
The phrase is now a common American expression meaning that some mechanism is malfunctioning or broken: “The washing machine’s on the fritz again” (the British and Australian equivalent would be on the blink). However, when it first appeared — about 1902 — it meant that something was in a bad way or bad condition. Early recorded examples refer to the poor state of some domestic affairs, the lack of success of a stage show, and an injured leg — not a machine or device in sight.
Some people, especially the late John Ciardi, the American poet and writer on words, have suggested it might be an imitation of the pfzt noise that a faulty connection in an electrical machine might make, or the sound of a fuse blowing. This theory falls down because none of the early examples is connected with electrical devices, and the phrase pre-dates widespread use of electricity anyway.
Others feel it must be connected with Fritz, the nickname for a German soldier. It’s a seductive idea. There’s one problem, though — that nickname didn’t really start to appear until World War One, about 1914, long after the saying had been coined.
William and Mary Morris, in the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, suggest that it may nevertheless have come from someone called Fritz — in the comic strip called The Katzenjammer Kids. In this two youngsters called Hans and Fritz got up to some awful capers, fouling things up and definitely putting the plans of other members of the strip community on the Fritz. The strip appeared in newspapers from 1897 onwards, so the dates fit rather nicely. But there’s no evidence that confirms it so far as I know. There’s also the key question: why don’t we talk about being on the Hans? [Well, not everything has a deep explanation; someone could have chosen randomly between Hans and Fritz.]
As is so often, Mr Leneker, I’ve gone around the houses, considered this theory and that, but come to no very definite conclusion. But the truth is that nobody really knows, nor now is ever likely to.
OED2 on the noun fritz:
slang (orig. and chiefly U.S.). Phr. on the fritz: out of order, defective, unsatisfactory; to put on the fritz (also to put the fritz on): to spoil, destroy, put a stop to.
1903 R. L. McCardell Conversat. Chorus Girl 15 They gave an open air [performance] that put our opera house show on the Fritz.
1906 H. Green At Actors’ Boarding House 359 What with me ketchin’ ’em cookin’ spaghetti on the gas an’ tearin’ up the bedspreads to use fur makeup towels, they’re puttin’ the place on the fritz!
1924 P. G. Wodehouse Bill the Conqueror v. 122 Everything’s on the fritz nowadays.
1962 Guardian 11 Apr. 9/2 It appeared, for an awful moment, that a cue had failed, that the teleprompter was on the fritz.
1968 R. H. R. Smithies Shoplifter (1969) vii. 151 It’s Mother’s plan to put the fritz on shoplifting.
Green’s Dictionary of Slang adds more cites, including another one from 1903 (with away to the fritz), but (as in the OED) those involving mechanical or electrical devices — now by far the predominant usage — don’t turn up until roughly 1960 (in the 60s, the antonym off the fritz ‘working’ also appears). Instead, the early examples involve people, events, situations, and the like.
(Green floats the German soldier and the onomatopoetic etymologies, but without much assurance.)
There is one tiny bit of support for the Katzenjammer Kid etymology, in the 1903 OED cite above, where the expression is spelled on the Fritz, with a capital F. But there’s still no direct evidence connecting the expression to the Kids.