Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Flash In The Pan

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 21, 2011

When someone says that a person, activity or item is a “flash in the pan” what they mean is that while the person, activity or item may draw a lot of attention at the moment, it’s obviously only going to be of interest to others for a very short time.

There are those who will try to sell you on the idea that gold prospecting or early photograph was the origin of ‘flash in the pan’ and in both cases, that is incorrect.

The Deseret News of Salt Lake City (UT) published an article by John Griffin on June 15, 1951 entitled “White Sox Bounce Nats in Twin Bill” which reported:

You can tell a champ in any sport, they say, by the way he gets up after a loss and takes charge again — and that’s just what those young and sassy Chicago White Sox were doing Friday.  A lot of folks, who thought that the classy kids from the Windy City were just a “flash in the pan,” figured that the belting they took in three straight games against the “old pro” New York Yankees would start the Sox on a long slide from first place, down.  But what happened instead?

Almost a century before that on July 25, 1854, in a Special Dispatch to the New York Daily Times, an article was published that read in part:

First we have the COLT investigation, which will turn out an ill-advised flash in the pan, and pass the bill designed to be defeated.  Next we have a positive charge of fraud and corruption made by a scion of DUFF GREEN against Hon. THOMAS H. BAYLY of Virginia which, having been exploded once already, probably  hasn’t enough of saltpetre in it to go off a second time, even in smoke.

In a letter dated July 26, 1789, Manon Roland (nee Marie-Jeanne Phlipon) who was involved in the French Revolution, wrote to her friend, Louis-Augustin-Guillame Bosc:

You are only children, you enthusiasm is a flash in the pan.  If this letter does not reach you, may the cowards who read it blush when they learn it comes from a woman.

Elkanah Settle (January 1, 1648 – February 12, 1724) commented on Mr. Dryden’s plays in 1687 and in “Reflections” she wrote:

If Cannons were so well bred in his Metaphor as only to flash in the Pan, I dare lay an even wager that Mr. Dryden durst venture to Sea.

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published reference to “flash in the pan” however Idiomation is able to explain how the saying came about.

In the days when flintlock muskets were used, a person, the muskets had small pans meant to hold small amounts of gun powder.  When the flint struck the pan, sparks flew into the gun powder and this resulted in the gun firing off the bullet.   Of course, weather and other technical problems — which happened often — would lead to “flash in the pan” and no firing, especially if the gun powder was damp.

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One Response to “Flash In The Pan”

  1. Great job Elyse and also another great name for a band but taken years ago.

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