From fighter pilots to power failure: how we got the word 'blackout'

Electrical power failures were first called blackouts in 1934 – but the first usage dates more than 20 years before

People walking in darkness at Clapham Junction station in London during a power cut.
People walking in darkness at Clapham Junction station in London during a power cut. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

After the UK’s largest electricity blackout in a decade, we learned of three blackout “near misses” in the previous three months. A “near miss” was originally a shot that only just missed its target; used of potential aviation collisions or other situations of barely avoided disaster, it should really be “near hit”. But how long have “blackouts” themselves been around?

The term is originally theatrical, for the extinguishing of lights while scenery is moved: the first use recorded in the OED is by the playwright George Bernard Shaw, in 1913. From 1929, blackouts became a problem for fighter pilots who experienced a loss of vision at high G-forces, and then the word was adopted to describe epileptic seizures or loss of memory by immoderate carousers.

It was in 1934 that the Atlantic magazine reported on the newfangled phrase “black-out” being used to mean “a failure of the electric light”; deliberate blackouts were enforced during the blitz, and a “news blackout”, to mean the suppression of reporting, also dates from the second world war. Perhaps the blitz spirit of post-Brexit Britain will see a comforting return to regular blackouts of the electrical, censorious, and alcoholic kind.