I’m filing this one under the new category “Historical NOOBs.” When a reader suggested it a few months back, I was initially dismissive, so established an expression (meaning a project, idea or proposal that absolutely will not fly) has nonstarter become. But she (I think it was a she) was right.
The OED dates the word back to 1865, when it was used, straightforwardly, to indicate a horse that was unable to start a race. The first metaphorical use was a line from a 1934 P.G. Wodehouse novel, and the first in what I consider the modern meaning from a 1942 book: “That is one reason why non-intervention is such a non-starter.” That and all subsequent citations in the OED are British.
The New York Times used nonstarter first in 1987 and since then on “about” 1489 occasions (the newspaper’s new search system is for some reason partial to approximation). The most recent came on April 1, in a quote by Speaker of the House John Boehner: “The additional revenue that Obama demanded was a ‘nonstarter,’ he says.”
Below are Google Ngram charts showing frequency of use of nonstarter between 1950 and 2008. It’s a bit hard to make out the numbers but they show British use picked up in the ’50s and U.S. use in the ’70s; that Americans caught up with Brits more or less in the late ’80s; and that we now use “nonstarter” more than 50 percent more frequently.