During the energy crisis in the early ’90s, I’d work by the light of a battery-powered lamp. One day, exasperated by a particularly difficult legal question, I decided to check how a blackout differs from a brownout.
According to the New American Oxford Dictionary, a blackout is a “failure of electrical power supply.”
A brownout is a “partial blackout” or “reduced illumination.”
Merriam-Webster, Learner’s Dictionary, and Oxford Advanced American Dictionary distinguish the two terms according to the reason behind the power failure. A blackout happens “because of an electrical power failure,” while a brownout happens “when the amount of electricity in an area is reduced because there is not enough for everyone who needs it.” A brownout, Merriam-Webster says, is caused “especially by high demand.”
Unlike the term brownout, the term blackout can refer to other instances not involving illumination:
- a temporary loss of consciousness, sight, or memory. Example: She had a blackout and couldn’t remember anything about the accident. (Oxford Advanced American Dictionary and Learner’s Dictionary)
- a situation when the government or the police will not allow any news or information on a particular subject to be given to the public. Example: The government imposed a news blackout during the crisis. (Oxford Advanced American Dictionary and Learner’s Dictionary)
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