Damp Squib

Meanings of “Damp Squib”

The phrase “damp squib” means utter failure, or something that falls short of expectations, or some anticlimax, or something that is utterly disappointing. It is also used for unimpressive situations, or events, or circumstances.

Origin of “Damp Squib”

The phrase “damp squib” seems to have originated from squibs, an explosive device that becomes damp, and does not work. It could be that the phrase was derived from squibs, the firework. However, its first use appeared in the newspaper published in London in March 1837, The Morning Post. The phrase was used for George Grote as; “Mr. Grote is a nice man. We rather like Mr. Grote. Mr. Grote does not vote black white; or fiz and splutter, after the fashion of a damp squib.”

Examples in Literature

Example #1

Damp Squib by Ruth Walters

A dirty damp patch
with a womanly shape
stained the old carpet
in his mother’s hallway

so we cleaned it up,
stripped up the carpet
sanded the floorboards
then painted them white.

The damp patch moved,
took itself upstairs,
lay down in the hall there
and festered.

Soon, very soon
we moved out, relocated
to a modern
two up, two down.

A town house,
quite plush,
our bolt hole
close to theatre land.

We furnished it
painted it
layed wooden

Then…one morning,
she appeared again;
the damp patch.
There she was

in the hall
a curvy patch
as my lovers face
turned to pale.

The poet highlights the superstitious nature of lovers, saying whenever the lady tries to adjust in the new house with new carpets and lush furniture, she always faces a new blot of dampness that she has had to remove, asking servants. Either, it moves upward or downstairs, it is always there. By the end, she explains that her lover turns pale when he sees the same patch in the hall of a new house. The phrase only shows its use in the title, but the poem seems its metaphorical representation.

Example #2

Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare by Jeremy Butterfield

People use folk etymology to tease sense from idioms containing rare words – which is where the title of this book comes in. It is very common to hear a damp squid instead of damp squib, to mean disappointment, and there are many examples on the Web. The reason for the change seems clear and perfectly logical in its own terms. The word squib means a firework, so the original idiom was transparent; a damp squib would not light and would be a great disappointment. As the word squib now rarely appears outside the idiom – though still used in some areas, for instance parts of Scotland – it no longer makes sense to some people. Replacing it with the word squid does two things: it links it to a word that people know, and it breathers new life into an otherwise dead metaphor. Squid intensifies the idea of dampness; and there is, arguably, a strong metaphorical link between dampness and disappointment.

This passage talks about the etymology of the phrases related to it and the meanings derived from them. To explain damp squib, he says that squib has been used for a firework, while damp means wet. Therefore, he argues, it naturally means a firework that disappoints. However, he also states that now squib or squid are rarely seen used separately from this word ‘damp.’ The passage shows a good etymological explanation of the phrase.

Example #3

To The Survivors by Philip G Henley

Then it was quiet on his trip. He would not stay over as it was only sixty miles or so, but he still took his full step up. He was given a hug from twins before he went off. Val had just nodded, looking annoyed. When he arrived, he parked at the fire exit as before. He looked around. The weather was fairly dismal again, the summer was a damp squib compared to the previous summer.

In this passage, the narrator states about the person having got a hug from the twins before meeting Val. When he stopped his car in the parking area, he pays attention to the weather that is a damp squib. It is clearly disappointing for him. The phrase has been used in its literal meanings.

Example #4

Time Sphere: A Timepathway Book by Murray C. Morison

“Goodness,” she said, looking at me, “you are a damp squib aren’t you!” She threw me a towel to dry my hair. “I’ll turn up the heating,” she continued. “We don’t want you to expire before Christmas.” She did just that and then said, “So, what on earth’s been happening.”

In this passage, the narrator turns to the male colleague to ask him to dry her hair before calling him a damp squib, by which she means that he is a good for nothing, or truly a disappointment. However, it is unclear why she has called him using this phrase. This unclarity leads to various possibilities which makes it an extended metaphor to describe the listener.

Example in Sentences

Example #1: “Patterson is a damp squib until now. Only God knows what will become of him.”

Example #2: “John is like a damp squib, he has not passed his 12th grade as yet. We are going to do all we can, but our hopes aren’t too high.”

Example #3: “Most of the time Harry’s damp squib attitude does not make others realize that he is feeling bad about something.”

Example #4: “It always looks like Joe’s is working like a genius but the results show that he is a damp squib.”

Example #5: “I always believed that Jake would make a name of himself, but alas! I was wrong. He proved to be a damp squib like his other brothers.”