Blitz is a clipping of blitzkrieg, the German word meaning lightning war, which referred to the high-speed, offensive tactics used by the German army in the opening months of World War II. In English, blitz originally referred to a sudden, violent military attack, especially one by air, or as a verb to conduct such an attack. And the blitz refers to the German air raids on London during 1940.
Blitzkrieg makes its English debut about a month after the German invasion of Poland that started WWII, in the magazine The War Illustrated on 7 October 1939:
In the opening stage of the war all eyes were turned on Poland, where the German military machine was engaged in Blitz-Krieg—lightning war—with a view to ending as soon as possible.
The German word caught on quickly in English usage, as evidenced by this metaphorical use by newspaper columnist Walter Winchell only a week later on 14 October 1939:
The next job, six months later, consumed four weeks of rehearsals and closed the next day after the critics blitzkrieged it.
The first known use of the clipped blitz in English appears a few weeks later, this time as a verb in the 1 November 1939 issue of The Spectator, Columbia University’s daily paper:
Formal committee chairmen must have known how the poor Poles felt when the German blitzkrieg suddenly started “blitzing” around their ears yesterday noon.
The word was quickly co-opted as slang for any sudden dash or movement in or out of a place. Such slang uses are recorded as early as 1940.
Following the war, blitz began to be used in a variety of senses, all related to metaphorical attacks or overwhelming some type of competition with speed and power. Perhaps the most famous of these is the word’s use in American football, where a blitz is a play where defensive backs charge the opposing quarterback in an effort to disrupt a pass play. It appears in print in New York Giants’ linebacker Sam Huff’s 1963 book, Defensive Football:
Sometimes the blitz works. Linemen are bowled over.
So while the meaning of blitz has evolved somewhat over the years, it still remains close to its violent roots.
“blitz, n.,” blitz, v.,” and “Blitzkrieg, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
“blitz, v.2,” Green’s Dictionary of Slang, 2011.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton