Imagine the most remarkable display of brinkmanship you could bring to a rink. Let’s say the rink is a frozen infinity pool, the waterfall edge the very brink of a cliff. Place a golden bracelet or ring there, on the brink – a real piece of bling you’d need to bring in a Brink’s truck, one that would break the bank or bring you to the brink of bankruptcy – and have a race to skate over, snatch it, and skate back. The starting bell rings, and they’re off. Look at that one, a real Hans Brinker, silver blades and all! (Actually, good steel does better, but, then, fiddles made of gold sound bad too and yet people want them.) The bling is teetering on the brink, and the others are making straight for it. But our Brinker skates around in a big S, swings in along the brink and, in the blink of an eye, picks it up with his pinkie! Will he slip over the brink? More to the point, will all the other skaters diving for him push him over the brink? No! He executes a beautiful Axel, sails over them as they go over the brink, and lands with a ringing silver “plink!”
Back from the brink of disaster! Brinkmanship indeed. No, wait – look at the big S right down the middle: that’s brinksmanship!
Brink is one of those good old resonant Germanic words (so many echoes of other words, and such a suggestive sound too) that these days are used more figuratively than literally. Things are on the brink, maybe teetering on the brink, or are brought back from the brink – of what? War, extinction, bankruptcy, disaster, death, collapse. All precipitous things, just like the cliff that a literal brink is the top edge of… in English, anyway.
It is interesting to see how brink has developed in different Germanic languages. In Danish, brink is a precipice; in Swedish, the descent of a hill; in German, a green hill; in Dutch, a hillside or the edge of a grassland – or the village green itself: that is where the family name Brink comes from. I suppose the ancestors of Perry Brink, founder of The Brink’s Company, may have been protectors of the village green; his company protects a different kind of green.
And brinkmanship – also seen as brinksmanship? It’s a creation of the Cold War, coined in 1958 by either John Foster Dulles (secretary of state) or Adlai Stevenson in reference to Dulles’s diplomatic approach of pushing opponents to the brink of nuclear war. Nowadays it is used more generally to refer to an approach that plays very close to the edge, just betting that the other guy will be the first to blink.