Why are squibs damp? How idioms are formed

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Last week, I set out to take part in a cyclethon which had all the promise of a thunderous event complete with disco lights, the hippest of DJs and an ongoing supply of energy drinks.

When I arrived, all I saw were a lot of empty bikes, women and men in tights waiting to mount, while crackling sound speakers and subdued lighting attempted to create an ambience.

Needless to say, it was a damp squib. By the time the DJs arrived the sweat party was all but over.

The expression damp squib is often mispronounced and thought of as damp ‘squid’. A squid is an elongated, fast-swimming mollusc with eight arms and two long tentacles, typically able to change colour.

This is vastly different from a squib which is  a small firework that burns with a hissing sound before exploding (is also means ‘short piece of satirical writing, more of that later) but let’s stick to the first meaning to establish the relevance of a squib’s dampness.

Fireworks have optimal effect when they are dry. Anyone who, has witnessed the fizzle of the blue touch paper seconds after it’s lit will know the disappointment of a damp squib. It’s like trying to light a match in gusting wind. Hopes are dashed and expectations are crushed.

Phrasefinder says, “In the 16th century, ‘squibs’ were also short, sharp literary compositions of a satirical or sarcastic character. Both the ‘firework’ meaning and the ‘satire’ meaning are first found in print in the 1520s and it isn’t entirely clear which came first.” https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/damp-squib.html

A damp squib is used to describe situations or events that fail to live up to expectations, disappointments or an anti-climax.

Now you know how to use it please do not say ‘damp squid’ (squid is quite delicious fried in butter) and the phrase ‘damp squid’ also ranks among the top ten of Britain’s most misquoted idioms – but that is not a rank to which any self-respecting idiom should aspire.

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Picture by Sam Lee – Unsplash

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