When an employer remarks that his employee's performance was a "flash in the pan," meaning that it was short-lived and ostentatious, but it actually amounted to nothing productive (Morris & Morris, p. 224), he/she is actually using a phrase that originated with the musket. The "pan" holds the gunpowder, and it is ignited by flint that is struck by the steel hammer when the trigger is pulled. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on which side of the gun one is positioned), the ignition sometimes results in nothing more than a flash, with not enough power generated to expel the musket ball from the barrel, hence the term "flash in the pan" (Hendrickson, p. 255).
One might wonder why such an action would be so unproductive. One possibility is that the powder used was wet, thus extinguishing the "fire" before it really caught. For this reason, a man going forth to shoot game for the evening meal or to fight in a war, even as recent as the War of the Rebellion (1861-1865), would be admonished to "keep your powder dry." This advice, now meaning, "Be prepared," was then a matter of life and death; if the powder was wet and didn't ignite, the enemy can easily get the upper hand (Drake, pp. 171-172; Feldman, p. 74). This might also take us to the origin of the expression "dead pan." Drake seems to tentatively attribute it to the pan of the musket (p. 85), but others are not so sure. Holt states that "pan" is another word for face (as of 1833) and, since "dead pan" (sometimes spelled as one word: "deadpan") means "expressionless," it would mean literally "dead face" (p. 73; Hendrickson, p. 195), which has been mentioned in an earlier article discussing the uses of the word "dead."
It is from the mechanism that ignites the powder that we get the term used by a commanding officer, shouting to his troops, "Fire!" (meaning "shoot"). The guns all erupted with mini-fires from the ignition of the powder by the flint/steel mechanisms (Glazier, p. 636). Holt agrees that the most logical source of this term, meaning "discharge," is not connected with burning, but, rather, is alluding to the use of a firearm (p. 94). Hendrickson elaborates on this, stating that the original term was "fire out," meaning to eject or discharge; eventually (in 1871) it was applied to dismissing a person from employment (perhaps from having too many "flashes in the pan"). Over the years it has been shortened to the single word "fire," but is derived from the "firing, or discharging, of a gun" (p. 252).
Another term for lighting the gunpowder in the pan is "touch off" (Drake, p. 309); today, we use that term to mean "ready to be ignited" and apply it to people more often than guns. Of course, if the gunpowder in the pan was dry, the gun was loaded, and the mechanism was working, the weapon was ready to be touched off; however, in common parlance, a person may have a temperament that is volatile, making him/her easily touched off (Funk, Horsefeathers, pp. 206-207). Although it seems logical to connect this term to a shortened version, "touchy," Shipley states that word comes from a French - tache - meaning "blemish" (p. 361). I am not wholly convinced of this latter origin, as it seems natural for people, over time, to reduce "he/she is easily touched off" to "he/she is touchy."
The concept of gunpowder may be foreign to many today, but the term "freeloader" certainly is not. It is an unprepared gunman (there were few gunwomen) who enters into battle without the necessary supplies; he might well be labeled a "freeloader" by his comrades when he "bums" shot or gunpowder off another shooter without making a move to reimburse the generous supplier (Drake, p. 128). This literal meaning to the word "freeloader" sheds new light on the term as it is in use today, meaning "someone who eats and drinks at someone else's expense" (Spears, p. 133).
Another common phrase, used to imply "completeness," originates with the components of the rifle. The "lock, stock, and barrel" are all needed for complete and accurate firing of the weapon. They function as follows: the "lock" is the mechanism used to propel the bullet or ball by use of the flint and steel setting fire to the powder, previously discussed (Drake, pp. 183-184); the "stock" is the part of the weapon that rests against one's shoulder to brace it for accurate shooting; and the "barrel" is the tube through which the bullet or ball travels, once propelled by the lock (Funk, Hog on Ice, p. 144).
Continuing with our investigation of the mechanics of the firing system, another phrase pops up that seems most certain to have its origin with gun use: "cocksure," or "cocky," originally meaning "certain, secure, or absolute," more recently implies "self-confident." The "cock" is released when the weapon is discharged, causing the flint to strike the steel, resulting in the spark that ignites the powder, as previously discussed (Martin). A "sure fire" results from the properly functioning cock (Holt, p. 59). Of course, it follows that a person who "goes off half-cocked" is one who has not completely prepared the weapon (or him/herself) for the task at hand (Drake, p. 120).
The interior part of the gun barrel, the "bore," is the origin of another phrase that implies "completeness." The bore's size is what is used to classify the gun's caliber and its cylindrical shape houses the ammunition (Glazier, p. 177). How the bore is constructed directly affects the accuracy of the shot. If the bore is unmodified and its full length is utilized ("full-bore"), the gunman is likely to be most effective (Drake, p. 130), hence the use of the term "full-bore" to imply "straight ahead" and "thorough" (American Heritage, on line).
In doing research, genealogists need to take care not to charge ahead full bore, going off half-cocked, lest our work be nothing more than a flash in the pan. We must take care to do our research in a thorough manner - lock, stock, and barrel - and avoid being touchy when someone points out an error in our reasoning; nor should we react dead pan, ignoring the helpful advice of those who might be better informed. We must also carefully document our sources so that no one will consider us freeloaders (using the work of someone else without giving proper credit). So, fellow genealogists, keep your powder dry and head out, full bore, to find those records. Fire!
American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, The, 4th Ed. Retrieved from Yourdictionary.com. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000.
Drake, P. What did they Mean by That? A Dictionary of Historical and Genealogical Terms Old and New. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, Inc., 2003.
Feldman, D. Who Put the Butter in Butterfly? . . . and Other Fearless Investigations into our Illogical Language. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Funk, C. E. A Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions: The Origin & Development of the Pungent & Colorful Phrases we All Use. New York: Harper & Row; 1948, 1985.
Funk, C. E. Horsefeathers & Other Curious Words. New York: Harper & Row, 1958, 1986.
Glazier, S. Word Menu. New York: Random House, 1998.
Hendrickson, R. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. & expanded Ed. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
Holt, A. H. Phrase and Word Origins: A Study of Familiar Expressions, Rev. ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.; 1936, 1961.
Martin, N. L. "The flintlock and the percussion lock." Coon 'N Crockett Muzzleloaders Club. Retrieved from http://www.coon-n-crockett.org, 21 Sept. 2005.
Morris, W. & Morris, M. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
Shipley, J. T. Dictionary of Word Origins. New York: Dorset Press, 1945.
Spears, R. A. NTC's Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions. Chicago: National Textbook Co., 1990.
Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.
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