Wednesday, March 6, 2013


I actually thought about doing this post some time ago, but didn't get around to it. It's mainly the workings of Washington these days that keep bringing the word into common speech. I do know what this word means--flirting with going over a brink of some kind in order to prove you have more chutzpah than your opponent. Playing a game of chicken, in other words. But when did brinksmanship become a word? And for that matter, what precisely is a brink? Although I know it's an edge, I can't help thinking of Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates every time I see it.


To start off, all the info I've found on this word has it as 'brinkmanship', though I have never heard it without that 's'. (Or, more likely, I have heard it, but just didn't notice the absence). According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the 's' in my version is 'parasitic', meaning it isn't necessary, but is copied from words like salesmanship, sportsmanship and the like, if in fact there are more.

I somehow associated  the word with royal courts of the past, possibly dueling, but in fact it is quite recent. My dad's big hero Adlai Stevenson first used it in print, in fact. He was speaking of a controversial statement by John Foster Dulles, which appeared in a magazine article in early 1955. He was Times Man of the Year.

The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art. If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.

Stevenson's response was to criticize Dulles.

We hear the Secretary of State boasting of his brinkmanship: the art of bringing us to the edge of the abyss.

    Adlai Stevenson - Speech at Hartford, Connecticut (25 February 1956)

And brink when it's at home? Well, it's either the Low German brink, which does mean edge, or the Danish version, which means 'steepness, shore, bank, grassy edge'.

The Dulles/Stevenson brink was a nuclear one, by the way. Personally, I'll take the Danish grassy edge every time.



  1. Ah, Adlai Stevenson! He's buried in my town. And I played his mother once, in the cemetery!!

  2. I remember that you had some connection. Do me a favor and go say hello to him, next time you're there.

    I do wonder why no one besides his descendents seem to be named Adlai.