Draw a blank

Draw a blank is an idiom that dates back hundreds of years. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words, or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, in the same boat, bite the bullet, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the idiom draw a blank, where it came from, and some examples of its use in sentences.

To draw a blank means to be unable to remember something or to fail at an endeavor. The idiom draw a blank usually means that one cannot provide some bit of information due to a lack of recall. The expression draw a blank is derived from an Elizabethan practice. During the 1500s, lotteries were held to fund the state. The drawings were conducted by writing the name of each participant on a slip of paper and putting those slips of paper in a pot. Then, prizes were written on slips of paper and put into another pot. The prizes were awarded by drawing a participant’s name and a slip of paper from the prize pot. If the slip of paper were blank, the participant did not win a prize. To draw a blank meaning to fail at an endeavor became a popular idiom very quickly, it took some time before the idiom took on its current most popular meaning, to fail to remember. Related phrases are draws a blank, drew a blank, drawing a blank.


“In the beginning I knew exactly who I could reach out to in about 10 countries, but ask me about Somalia and I’d draw a blank,” Dolat says. (The Philadelphia Tribune)

I can write an entire column in my head while mowing the lawn but will draw a blank when I sit down to type it out. (The Dawson Creek Mirror)

After Newcastle drew a blank against Burnley in February, Shearer tore into the attacking recruitment which has seen the club struggle for goals since Bruce took over. (The Chronicle)

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