Q: What is the origin or the meaning of “flash in the pan”?
A: The saying, which refers to short-lived fame or success, refers to an actual flash that occurs in an actual pan, according to the website, The Phrase Finder (phrases.org/uk).
In this case, it is a small pan that flintlock muskets contained. The pan held the gunpowder charge. If an attempt to fire the musket failed but caused the gunpowder to flare up, it became known as a flash in the pan.
The site states the term has been recognized since the late 1600s.
I had always assumed the phrase came from the California Gold Rush and the notion of a prospector finding a flash of gold in a pan and then never finding gold again, but the site states that’s not the case.
According to the site, there is another “pan” phrase related to gold prospecting. That term, “it didn’t pan out,” is traced to the early 20th century. The Phrase Finder cites Paul Haworth’s 1921 book, “Trailmakers of the Northwest,” in which he writes, “The Colonel had told them that a cubic foot of gravel would pan out twenty dollars in gold.”
The Phrase Finder also gives the musket credit for another common phrase: “lock, stock and barrel.”
The saying, which is used to mean “the whole thing,” refers to the entire musket.
Think of the lock as the musket’s flintlock. The site states various “lock” muskets have been around throughout the centuries, including firelocks, matchlocks and flintlocks.
The stock is the wooden butt of the gun. In fact, the site points out stock also is a generic term for a solid base. It is the “butt or stump” of something.
And how about this: the site states the phrase “laughing stock” comes from the notion of something being the butt or stump, that is, “the butt of a joke.”
Once again, I’m glad to have learned that, because I once had heard the phrase “laughing stock” originated from the notion of laughing at people who were publicly in stockades as punishment.
I guess that idea was just a flash in the pan.
Of course, the barrel portion of the saying is the easiest part. It denotes the musket’s barrel, thus completing the musket parts — lock, stock and barrel.
Bernie Delinski writes Just Ask, which runs Wednesdays in the TimesDaily. If you’ve got a question, e-mail it to bernie.delinski@TimesDaily.com, call him at 256-740-5739, fax it to 256-740-4717 or send it to Just Ask, c/o TimesDaily, P.O. Box 797, Florence, AL 35631.