Another in our more fun look at phrases we’re associated with, this time relating to the word damp. (Of read more info on our damp proofing treatments).
There are many odd phrases in the English language that, on the surface, seem to be almost gibberish. But when you investigate them, it is surprising the meaning behind many of these common phrases and one example of such is a ‘damp squib’. So what exactly does it refer to?
The first thing to mention is that the phrase has nothing to do with strange looking aquatic creatures. Referring to a damp squid would be like referring to a damp fish – what else would a water creature be but wet? As with many of our words, the similarity of squid and squib leads to confusion but the phrase definitely refers to a squib. So what’s a squib?
A squib is in fact a type of firework that was normally shaped into a cylinder and had a paper fuse at one end. It looks a little like a stick of dynamite but only produced a very gentle explosion in comparison. Squibs were used in everything from military applications to pyrotechnic effects in the film and theatre industries as well as for coal mining, where they were used to break coal from the rock. One version was even mass-produced and was called the Miners Safety Squib.
Like any firework, a squib had to be dry to work – a wet firework doesn’t work. So if the squib got wet, you could light the blue touch paper and run to a safe spot but the best response you would get would be a little ‘phut’ noise and the flame would fizzle out. Hence, this disappointment was the result of a damp squib.
In the 16th century, squib also gained another connection – it was a short, sharp literary composition that was either sarcastic or satirical in nature. Whether the use as a firework or as a piece of literature was the first use of the word is unclear, but both were used in print in the 1520s.
The first written use of the phrase damp squib was from the London newspaper the Morning Post in March 1837 when it was used in an article about the British parliamentarian George Grote. It described him as being a nice man who does not ‘vote black white or fizz and splutter after the fashion of a damp squib’.
The term is still used by journalists today in much the same context, but is also mistakenly substituted for squid. One example was from the Trinidad and Tobago Express from June 2005 which referred to “..the excitement lasting for another few weeks before it peters out into a ‘damp squid’.” Poor aquatic creatures being dragged into matters again!
So to clarify, a damp squib is something of an anti-climax, a non-event. Also potentially a disappointment, perhaps such as attending a concert and finding the artist just mimed, or watching a film that has been really well reviewed and finding it boring.