Thursday, 30 August 2007

Origin of the saying " A flash in the Pan"

Describes a situation where a specific expectation of performance is expected from a person or thing. This expectation does not materialize, and disappears very quickly.
Now, as with most sayings, the meaning is usually the same, it’s the origin that’s the fun part. In this case three origins were “identified”. (There may be more).
The first, and, most popular, is that the saying originated from the old flintlock rifle. A flint would strike a plate, and the spark created would ignite gunpowder in a pan. This explosion would ignite the charge in the rifle, and “bang” the bullet would be expelled. It would appear as though this exercise was not always successful. The powder in the pan would “flash”, but not ignite the powder in the rifle. The expectation was there, nothing happened, therefore “a flash in the pan”
The second refers to mining, specifically gold mining. Gold miners in days of old would have a pan would swish water and gravel around in it, trying to separate the gold from the sand. “A flash in the pan” was what appeared to be gold, but on closer investigation turned out to be nothing of value. Again, an expectation that came to nothing.
The last one I found had to do with photography, a type of combustible powder was used to create a “flash” when an image was taken. Not much support on this one.
Images from Wikipedia.
I am fiddling around with one of those "poll" thingies. Vote on which one you think is the "correct" origin.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad to have came across this explanation of "A Flash in the Pan" because I'm always stuck when trying to explain the origin...especially about the type of gun involved.
Many thanks for settling the issue for me!

Janis said...

Hello, I would suggest that the flint lock is the origin. The fling lock pre-dates the gold rush and the expression was already in common use when the gold rush began. Best regards, Janis