Drawing a “Blank” — but Not on These Word Origins

Wednesday, November 233 min read

When you can’t think of the right word, you “blank.” You also fill out blank checks, shoot blanks for target practice, and fill in the blanks on worksheets in grade school.  From the French word blanc, meaning “white” and “shining,” the 13th-century Old English word “blanca” specifically referred to a white horse. From this dazzling debut, the color transitioned into the absence of something. Let’s trace how a color became a coin, and a coin became a void.

A Shiny Beginning

In medieval Europe, “blanks” were small silver coins, similar in denomination to a penny. While they were shiny, they were pretty useless as currency, and this is where the connection between “blank” and emptiness likely began. Centuries later, the relationship between the term and coins hasn’t completely disappeared — there are still coin collectors who seek out blank coins, also called “planchets” if there is a raised rim. These collectors seek coins that are actually blank due to rare errors by the United States Mint, rather than blank due to scammers scratching off markings to trick people.

Shooting a Blank

By the 1550s, archers began to refer to the center of the target as a “blank.” It was a white, empty space until a skilled marksman filled it with arrows. In the 1800s, target shooters started referring to empty firearm cartridges as “blanks.” Instead of a bullet, wads of materials such as plastic, felt, or cotton are propelled from the gun. Shooting blanks can still be dangerous, but they are intended to be used at a certain distance, and by trained people, such as stunt professionals.

A Disappointing Lottery System

The phrase “drawing a blank” can be traced directly to 1567 and Queen Elizabeth I’s lottery. One pot held slips of paper with participants’ names, and the other pot held prize amounts (including zero). The lottery official would draw slips from each, and a name might be paired with “a blank,” which meant there was no prize amount. The 1822 poem “That the World Is a Lottery” describes it as, “The court has itself a bad lottery’s face, Where ten draw a blank before one draws a place.” Lottery tickets today don’t contain such trickery, though they still seem almost as unwinnable.

A Placeholder for Unsaid Words

Not every word is fit to print. Where there’s a curse word or some other phrase that needs to be cut, “blankety-blank-blank-blank” might fill the void. This comes from older printing techniques, when blank lines would show where words still to come needed to be placed. (Modern editors still use the acronym “TK” to mean “to come.”)

Finally, in the 1900s, people themselves started “blanking,” or forgetting things they’d once been told or meant to say. A question can be asked “point-blank,” or in a direct and straightforward manner, and a speaker might “blank on'' something, such as an idea or the location of an item. The mind can “go blank” or “draw a blank,” also indicating forgetfulness.

Blanking in Modern Lyrics

Musicians and artists might draw a blank here and there in their creative processes, but there’s no shortage of “blank” references in modern music and pop culture. Taylor Swift’s No. 1 2014 hit “Blank Space” — which includes the lyrics “Got a long list of ex-lovers / They’ll tell you I'm insane / But I’ve got a blank space, baby / And I’ll write your name” — refers to an opening in her life, schedule, and heart for someone to adventure with. But it's also a play on that list of exes, and the rumors written about Swift's relationships.

The rock band Phish, meanwhile, pushes listeners to dig into the “blank space where my mind should be” in their 2009 song “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan.” This use of “blank” nods to our minds blanking, but also to life’s demands — “gonna dream of being free.” This usage has become more popular through meditation practices as people intentionally seek to be free from the confines of their minds, seeking to “blank,” or to think of nothing at all.

There are both positive and negative connotations with the word in modern usage: A blank slate represents new beginnings, while a blank stare can indicate disapproval. Blank minds can be freeing and peaceful, but also disconnected. The usage of “blank” continues to evolve.

Featured image credit: m-imagephotography/ iStock

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