Word Geek – Flash in the pan
As the mini heatwave we experienced arrived suddenly and stayed only briefly, The Language Factory were left wondering if that was the extent of our summer. We hope that’s not the case but if it is we could describe summer 2016 as a ‘flash in the pan’. The phrase is used to describe those occasions (like the two weeks of unusually high UK temperatures!) when normal expectations are brilliantly surpassed but cannot be maintained.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the phrase was first heard in reference to the ‘pan’ of an old-fashioned gun, which held the priming. On occasion the priming would flash in the pan without igniting the charge which let off an enormous bang but didn’t achieve the desired effect. The phrase therefore, started off describing something that seemed to start off well, promising great results, but then failed to achieve what it set out to do.
Nowadays the meaning of the saying has altered slightly, with the emphasis on the ‘flash’ part of the phrase. It is used to describe a time of brief success, occurring at any time – not necessarily from the outset.
A good example of this is in the The Natural, Bernard Malamud (1952), where the phrase is mentioned in relation to a baseball player, suggesting his high performance may not be sustainable:
‘The companies were suspicious that he might be a flash in the pan.’
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