The Grammarphobia Blog

Blank check

Q: I’ve drawn a blank in my efforts to discover the origin of the expression “draw a blank.” Can you help please?

A: The expression is an allusion to drawing a blank, or losing, ticket in a lottery, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The use of “blank” to mean “a lottery ticket which does not gain a prize” first appeared in print in 1567, the OED says. The quotation: “A verie rich Lotterie … without any blancks.”

Here are a couple more OED citations for “blank” used in this literal (that is, lottery) sense:

From John Moore’s A View of Society and Manners in France, Switzerland and Germany (1779): “All the tickets he had in the lottery had proved blanks.”

And from Washington Irving’s Tales of a Traveller (1824): “It is like being congratulated on the high prize when one has drawn a blank.”

Figuratively, the OED says, to “draw a blank” is “to be unsuccessful, to fail (in a search); to be in vain. (With allusion to drawing a blank in a lottery.)”

The first published reference in the OED for this usage is from an 1825 issue of Sporting Magazine: “One hundred sovereigns is a very pretty ‘find’ in any man’s pocket, and particularly so in one which is sometimes drawn a blank.”

These days, it often means failure to remember something or come up with an answer.

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