"edge or border of a steep place," early 13c., from Middle Low German brink "edge," or from a Scandinavian source akin to Danish brink "steepness, shore, bank, grassy edge," from Proto-Germanic *brenkon, probably from PIE *bhreng-, variant of *bhren- "to project; edge" (source also of Lithuanian brinkti "to swell").
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also brinksmanship (with unetymological -s-), 1956, a construction based on salesmanship, sportsmanship, etc.; from brink (n.). The image of the brink of war dates to at least 1829 (John Quincy Adams).
In the Cold War it was associated with the policies advocated by John Foster Dulles, U.S. Secretary of State 1953-1959. The word springs from Dulles' description of his philosophy in a magazine interview [with Time-Life Washington bureau chief James Shepley] in early 1956:
The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art. If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.
The quote was widely criticized by the Eisenhower Administration's opponents, and the first attested use of brinkmanship seems to have been in such a disparaging context, a few weeks after the magazine interview appeared, by Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson criticizing Dulles for "boasting of his brinkmanship — the art of bringing us to the edge of the nuclear abyss."
Sense "foremost part of anything" emerged in the English word mid-14c.; sense of "the face as expressive of temper or character" is from late 14c. (hence frontless "shameless," c. 1600). The military sense of "foremost part of an army" (mid-14c.) led to the meaning "field of operations in contact with the enemy" (1660s); home front is from 1919. Meaning "organized body of political forces" is from 1926. Sense of "public facade" is from 1891; that of "something serving as a cover for illegal activities" is from 1905. Adverbial phrase in front is from 1610s. Meteorological sense first recorded 1921.