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ABOUT THIS WORD
What does brownout mean?
A brownout is like a blackout, just not as bad.
Where an electrical blackout means a loss of electricity, a brownout is a reduction in power. In a brownout, electric devices might still work, but be dimmer, slower, or generally less powerful.
If someone blacks out drunk, they can’t remember what they did. If someone browns out they have some memories, but only hazy or patchy ones.
Where does brownout come from?
An electrical blackout, among other senses of the word, is recorded in 1934, the same year we find blackout for a loss of memory, as due to alcohol or drugs.
Brown isn’t as dark as black, and so a brownout isn’t as severe as a blackout. An electrical brownout is found as early as 1942 in Australia for a partial blackout (i.e., some power is off).
During World War II, cities would conduct blackouts and brownouts to reduce the rise of air attacks. With no lights or dimmed lights on the ground, it would be harder for attacking forces to see potential targets. Eddie Leonski, a U.S. soldier stationed in Australia, used the darkness of these brownouts to commit several murders in 1942, earning him the nickname the Brownout Strangler.
The end of the war curtailed intentional brownouts and blackouts, but unintentional ones continued. In 1971, Popular Mechanics saw them as an ongoing problem due to overuse and undersupply of electricity, recommending home owners get their own generators to avoid utilities having to conduct brownouts.
The alcohol and drug-related brownout appears to originate from the community of consumers, not health professionals. In one first-person account from 1999, a writer recalls “passing out generally by 9:30, in at least a brownout and usually in a blackout.” A 1995 article in The Advocate discusses the possible role of brownouts in a homicide. In a 1997 play called Blackout, one character describes a situation where she was browned out: “I vaguely remember seeing some of it.”
So, a brownout is not quite a blackout. Some hazy memories remain, with neither a full and coherent recollection of the night nor a complete loss of it.
How is brownout used in real life?
A brownout is the instance of browning out, a verb form of the term. It can be used of the electrical and alcohol or drug senses.
Electrical brownouts still occur, when electrical power fails to meet electrical demand. In the Philippines, as it happens, they call a blackout a brownout.
A medical expression for a drunken brownout is “an alcohol-induced fragmentary blackout.” Of course, even though the person can remember some of the night, other memories, including risky behavior, might be forgotten. Browning out isn’t a great decision, overall.
Aeronautics has its own use of the term brown out. It refers to the vision reduction caused by the dust or sand. This draws on another blackout, a temporary loss of sight that can happen at high accelerations while flying.
This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.
British Dictionary definitions for brownout
noun mainly US
Cultural definitions for brownout
A situation in which the voltage in a power grid is reduced below its normal level but not entirely eliminated. (Compare blackout.)