Meanings Lost in Time #9

Two this week


Often used by me in my various writing projects over the years before I discovered that real writers do not keep quoting sayings or clichés if they want to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, this is an interesting idiom and still part of the English language. It deserves to be hauled out for an autopsy to uncover its origins!

  • First conclusions might be something to do with cooking maybe?
  • NO
  • Lightning coming down on unknown objects no longer with us or heard of today?
  • NO

What is my interpretation of this saying and when would I use it? (If I did use clichés regularly.) A description of someone who has done or achieved something unexpectedly and is not likely to repeat the feat. Simply a flash in the pan. Perhaps a fight won by someone accidentally and not likely to happen again.

Probably an accurate assessment of its use today even though this is slightly off centre with the truth and not accurately reporting the image of the metaphor.

Here are its true origins:

Around 1800, muskets had a priming pan which was filled with gunpowder. When ignited it lit the main charge to propel the ball. (A pre-ignition mechanism.) Sometimes the powder in the pan failed to light the main charge so there was no issue from the muzzle. Only a flash in the pan.

So, something promised that came to nothing.


 In the 17th century England and Holland were rivals for a number of reasons. There were three wars between 1652 and 1674 and this was plenty of time to think up insults and derisory comments about the enemy.

I have found three. One of them was that the Dutch were cowards and had to build up their courage by getting drunk – not true but the saying Dutch Courage has persisted. Another is  Dutch Treat meaning that you pay for yourself – often called Going Dutch today. Double Dutch is the final insult meaning gibberish.

All three are very alive and frequently used today.