idiom 122 – to draw a blank

„Hey Walter, I’m trying to find the number for the lady who called in and left a message requesting an offer. What was her name again?“

„It was… wait a minute. Sorry Elizabeth, I’m totally drawing a blank here.“

„Did you write it down?“

„I must have, but I can’t find it anywhere!“

Sometimes, we just can’t remember some specific bit of information. It happens to everyone. In this case, English native speakers use the idiom „to draw a blank“ to describe the gap (Lücke) in our memory.

The origins of this idiom date back to Elizabethan England, when the first national lotteries were introduced in order to raise funds for the expansion of the royal fleet. Participants‘ tickets were drawn (gezogen) from one pot, and prize tickets were drawn from another. However, sometimes the „winner“ was drawn with a blank prize ticket, meaning that the winner’s prize was „nothing.“

It took nearly three hundred years until this term first appeared in written and idiomatic form, when in 1824, US-American writer Washington Irving (famous for the Halloween classic The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) wrote the following line, describing the feeling of taking unfair credit for someone else’s work:

„It is like being congratulated on the high prize when one has drawn a blank.“

Nowadays, when we draw a blank, we’re not only describing that memory gap, but also an unsuccessful attempt to do something, much like the German idiom „eine Niete ziehen,“ which also has it’s linguistic origins in Renaissance-era lottery systems – the blank ticket was called a „Niete“ in the Dutch lottery system.