Flash in the Pan, a

A flash in the pan is a common idiomatic expression which has its origins in the 16th century.

Meaning of Flash in the Pan

When we say something is a flash in the pan, we mean that it is a sudden success or effort that which is brief and unlikely to happen again. Usually, the expression is reserved for things that show particular promise in the beginning but that don’t turn out to be as good as they seem at first.

Examples Of Use

“Kevin’s acting career was just a flash in the pan, his looks got him in the door, but his acting ability slammed it in his face.”

“I lost a good bit of weight on that darn diet but it was just a flash in the pan. I gained back twice as much as I lost!”

Flintlock gun, origin of idiom 'flash in the pan
Guns like this flintlock pistol from the the late 16th century are the origin of the idiom “a flash in the pan.”


Flash in the pan most probably comes from the firearms called muskets, of the 16th to 17th century. These were flintlock guns. The guns had a “pan” (or priming pan) which held the gunpowder. When the trigger was pulled a hammer flint would strike a piece of steel called a frizzen which would cause sparks to fly into the flash pan, igniting the powder which would lead to the main charge in the combustion chamber being ignited, discharging the gun.

When, as often occurred, the charge in the priming pan was ignited but it failed to ignite the main charge so that the gun did not fire (called a misfire). When this occurred, it was called a ‘flash in the pan.’ A lot of sparks and poofs but nothing much else!

Flintlock muskets were such familiar weapons, and misfires were so common, that flash in the pan passed into figurative use.

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