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Flash in the pan

A flash in the pan is something that has a strong start but quickly fails. The idiom is sometimes used in reference to people (e.g., he was just a flash in the pan) and sometimes to things or actions (his success was just a flash in the pan).

The pan in flash in the pan refers to the piece of a musket that holds gunpowder. When a musket is fired with gunpowder in the pan but no bullet, there is a flash and a loud noise, but nothing else happens. It’s also been conjectured that the phrase comes from gold prospecting, where a flash in the pan might cause a moment of excitement followed by disappointment, but all the historical instances of the phrase that we can find refer to musketry.

Examples

In these 18th-century examples, the phrase is used literally:

[W]e resolved therefore to keep some of our Pieces uncharg’d, and only prim’d, and causing them to flash in the Pan, the Beasts, even the Lions themselves, would always start, and fly back when they saw it, and immediately march off. [The life, adventures, and pyracies, of the famous Captain Singleton, by Daniel Defoe (1720)]

[I]n the midst of that resolution and bravery, which enflames and animates gallant spirits, comes a chance ball, shot off by one, who, perhaps, fled and was frighted by the very flash in the pan, and in an instant cuts short, and puts an end to the thoughts and life of him, who deserved to have lived for many ages. [1742 translation of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, by Charles Jarvis]

[T]his chief … suddenly seized the gun which his guest had in his hand, cocked it, and … drew the trigger, but it happened only to flash in the pan. [Universal geography formed into a new and entire system, by John Pane (1794)]


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Examples of the phrase used figuratively become more common toward the end of the 18th century and into the 19th:

As to Miss De Gray, it is impossible that she can love such a flash in the pan, such a match always lighted, as Medway. [The tutor of truth, by Mr. Pratt (Samuel Jackson) (1784)]

[W]e much question whether Mr. G’s theory of perpendicular extraction will not be found to be a mere flash in the pan. [Article in American journal of dental science by H. Gilbert (1850)]

“Oh! he’s a charlatan, for all that—his tirade is a mere flash in the pan; frothy fools take amazingly at first.” [The eventful epoch; or, The fortunes of Archer Clive, by Nicholas Michell (1846)]

And because muskets are now a thing of the past, the phrase is almost always metaphorical in current use:

Marketing experts say it’s too soon to know whether the New York Knicks’ overnight sensation is a flash in the pan or an enduring superstar. [Los Angeles Times]

This is no flash in the pan: Samsung outsold the iPhone for the whole of 2011. [The Observer]

Facebook, it seems, produces a sharp, blinding flash in the pan, but it does not generate enough heat over an extended period to warm the house. [Daily Beast]

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Comments

  1. Johnny Tremain says:

    Not “muskets” but “flintlock firearms,”
    which include many early muskets. (Muskets went on to include percussion,
    breechloading and self-contained metallic cartridge [what we now know as “cartridges”]
    designs.)

    The “pan” held a small amount of gunpowder (a “priming
    charge”). The priming charge, if ignited, produces hot gases which make
    their way through the “touch hole” (a hole in the breech of the
    barrel that is at the end of the “pan”) to – hopefully – ignite the
    main charge behind the projectile. “Flash in the pan” is when only
    the “priming charge” ignites, producing a flash of flame and a goodly
    amount of smoke, but little else. With muskets, IT IS VERY DIFFICULT (close to
    impossible) and counter to their training to load the main charge without loading the projectile, since
    muskets are military and the military-issue muzzle-loading rounds (also often
    called “cartridges”) were usually paper and contained BOTH gunpowder
    and projectile. The soldier tore the cartridge tail with his teeth, poured a
    bit of the charge in the “pan,” closed the “frizzen” (the
    part of the flintlock that is a steel face the flint struck to create the
    sparks, but also included a pan cover to contain the priming charge if the
    musket was tilted), inverted the gun, and poured the main charge and projectile
    down the barrel. The projectile was loose in the cartridge, ahead of the powder
    charge, so it tended to just fall out of the cartridge. It was rare that the
    soldier left out the “ball,” which would render him defenseless. Then the
    soldier would draw the gun’s ramrod, use it to ram the projectile down to seat
    it on the main charge.

    We adopted many terms from muzzle-loading firearms. The mentioned “flash
    in the pan”, plus “ramrod” (to get things done or one who gets
    things done), “lock, stock and barrel” (everything that made up a
    gun), “hardball” (to get serious, from hard-cast musket balls [soft
    lead was the usual] and, later, military-issued metallic cartridges
    [“ball” ammo, even though no part of the ammo was a round ball
    anymore] loaded to the military’s high requirements of power), “powder keg” (a
    potentially explosive situation), and probably more that have slipped my mind.

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