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:

Photo credit: Flickr


7 thoughts on “Blackout, brownout

  1. thanks for the clarification, ms. janet. all my life, i thought brown-outs refer to power outages during daytime and black out is for nightime. haha, now i know. regards to the family…

  2. Thanks Ms. Janet!
    I’ve been on of your fans since I joined one of your recent seminars on Effective Business Writing Skills.

    I want to know when to use “specially” and “especially”.

    Thank you!

  3. this is why we’ve taken out the word “brownout” from our newspaper, even though davao light and power company still uses it. i remember my father telling me that the word brownout was used by the marcos administration so that power outages don’t sound so bad. if i remember right, brownount DAW was for the normal outages that covered small areas (neighborhoods, etc). the word “blackout” was reserved for nationwide (or luzonwide, etc) outages. i can’t find anyone to verify this, though, although some people at davao light agree with me.

  4. Jon, yes, same thing for Cebu! When I was growing up, we used “brownout” when the power failure affecter smaller areas, and “blackout” for bigger areas.

  5. ang pagkaka alam ko.. basta malawakang na power failure sa citties or districts, black out at kung mga ilang streets lang brown regarless kung daytime or night time ang power failure.. thanks sa researched mam.

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