A broken record is an idiomatic expression that describes a situation in which an ongoing series of repetitions is taking place. The idiom is sometimes employed when an individual continues to bring up the same subject repeatedly within a short period of time, usually without providing any additional insights or information as part of the discussion. The development of this colorful saying has its roots in the production of acetate recordings that were popular during the first half of the 20th century, and what would happen when those acetate records were damaged in some manner.
Prior to the development and use of vinyl for long-playing records, a more rigid yet sensitive material known as acetate was used to press copies of recordings. Acetate records required very careful handling in order to prevent damage to the playing surfaces, such as scratching or even hairline cracks. When an acetate record was damaged, this would negatively impact the ability of the record player needle to track properly along the grooves of the record’s surface. Owing to the damage, the needle would often jump backward to a previous groove, or stick in the damaged one. The end result is that one small part of the recording would play again and again, unless the needle arm was manually moved forward and past the damaged area.
When a person continues to repeat the same words or phrases to the irritation of those who are listening, the individual is normally informed that he or she sounds like a broken record. The implication is that the point has been made and it is time to move on to other information or topics of discussion. Other colorful expressions may also be used in conjunction with the reference to being like a broken record, including informing the speaker that his or her needle is stuck. Employing these phrases is normally an attempt to prompt the individual to cease dwelling on a particular subject and move the conversation forward or change the subject altogether.
While long-playing records are now only pressed in limited editions and acetate has long since been replaced by vinyl, the reference to a broken record has continued in relatively common use in many cultures around the world. Unlike other idioms, being referred to as a broken record is consistently considered a negative characteristic, unlike other idioms in which the time, place, and setting will influence whether the idiom is a criticism or a term of endearment.