Josna Rege

439. Of Damp Squibs and Other Watery Slurs

In Aging, history, Immigration, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on August 20, 2019 at 10:40 pm

A squib is a type of firework, hence damp squib:
something that fails ignominiously to satisfy expectations; an anti-climax.”
—Oxford English Dictionary

In a recent text-message exchange with my friend Anna I found myself using the term “damp squib” to describe an anticipated event that hadn’t come to pass. Quite understandably, she was nonplussed; what was a squib when it was at home, and why was I calling it damp? Also understandably, Anna thought I had meant “squid,” but that didn’t shed any more light on the subject for her. I explained, and followed up with a link to a dictionary definition of the British idiom. Literally, a damp squib is a firework that fails to go off because it has gotten wet; and figuratively, something that fails to come up to expectations.  But this isn’t interesting in itself, except to superannuated language nerds like me; more interesting is how and why we use the language that we do.

Did I even consider, when I used “damp squib” in my message to Anna, that she wouldn’t be familiar with it? Surely I must have known, but in the end, I suppose, just using the term was more enjoyable to me than whether or not it was understood. Perhaps, although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, I wanted the opportunity to explain something that I thought was important but that many people were letting fall by the wayside, all unawares.

As I get older, I find that my English gets older too. Funnily enough, as I age, it seems to reach farther and farther back before my time, perhaps anticipating my obsolescence by attempting to revive terms that are already obsolete, or at least archaic. Why do I rant impotently at the screen when a film or television series uses anachronisms—especially a British or Indian film using Americanisms (they would never have said that!). Is it the educator in me getting so exercised about this or, as retirement looms, is it my own dread of becoming irrelevant?

Enough of the navel-gazing and back to these terms, and the joy they bring to me when they roll upon the tongue. When I used one of them in conversation with my mother, even when her Alzheimer’s Disease no longer permitted her to speak, she would break into a grin. When I am with someone of my generation, whether they are from England, India, or the United States, I find myself reveling in shared idioms, in knowing that I will be understood, no questions asked. Rather than running through an interminable list of them, let’s just look at a couple more in the same watery vein as “damp squib.”

There’s the wet blanket. Don’t be such a wet blanket, you might say to someone who, in American parlance, is being a party pooper. Their lack of enthusiasm puts a damper on the fun. Then there’s someone who’s so inexperienced that they’re still wet behind the ears, quite the opposite of the cynic who wasn’t born yesterday.

Water is a good thing, isn’t it? We can’t live without it. Furthermore, it prevents explosions (that damp squib again), puts out fires (the wet blanket) and productively controls burning (the damper). Then why is there such a negative connotation to these watery idioms? If fire is associated with manhood (think fiery loins), water can be used as a gender-policing slur. In American English someone deemed weak or wimpy is called a wet noodle; in British English, simply wet. It becomes an abhorrent ethnic slur in the term wetback (referring to a person who has swum across the Rio Grande to enter the U.S. illegally),used to refer to Mexicans. Under Dwight Eisenhower’s 1954 Operation Wetback, in that year alone more than a million Mexicans who had immigrated to the U.S. legally, many of them recruited for cheap labor under the Bracero program, some of them U.S. citizens, were subjected to forcible mass deportation. Sound familiar?

While we need water to survive, we condemn others by pronouncing them wet. It’s downright perverse. Still, water gets its own revenge. As in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, one can be surrounded by precious water and still be ravaged by thirst.

Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink/ Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.

Let that be a warning to all those who misuse words, water, and their fellow beings, whether on the tongue, on the ground, or on the rolling deep.




Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents


  1. I can vaguely remember hearing the word squib in reference to an underwhelming firecracker. Also a warning to stay away because it could still go off.

    • Underwhelming is the right word here! Yes, damp squibs can still be very dangerous. I remember one Guy Fawkes Day while I was in England I was appalled to learn that the emergency rooms always overflowed that night, and that many if not most of the accidents involved a young person going up to check why a given firework–say, a bottle rocket–hadn’t gone off and then it going off in their face. Horrific! I was outraged because at that time they sold fireworks to minors everywhere in the U.K. Thank you for commenting. J

  2. I will be looking for an opportunity to use “damp squib”.

  3. Of course, ‘squib’ has a different connotation these days as any Harry Potter fan will confirm!

    Idioms are some of the hardest obstacles to surmount for anybody learning a foreign language (as I can attest with French, Italian and Welsh) and for a word fiend like me I’m likely to spend so much time searching out etymologies and the origins of metaphors that I will lose the thread of a conversation or the point of an argument!

    I love the way you inform as you entertain, Josna, and slip in social issues and current affairs into your reminiscences, even though I sometimes am depressed by man’s continued and pervasive inhumanity to other humans.

    • Thank you for your always-interesting comments, Chris. French, Italian, and Welsh–wow! And though I read most of the HP books long ago, I haven’t taken them up for a longtime and had forgotten about squibs. Just looked them up:
      Yes, I too love looking up the origins of metaphors. A Banlgadeshi friend of mine just sent me an email responding to this blog in which she gave me a Bengali equivalent to “wet behind the ears.” She wrote, “this reminded me of Bengali idiom, nak tiplay dudh berai (If you press the nose, milk comes out.)
      Cheers, J

      • P.S. After reading about Rowling’s use of “squib”, I must say I find it disturbing–a derogatory term too close to racial thinking. What do you think?

      • I’m afraid my Italian is molto basic, Josna, and my Welsh even more so. But I love that Bengali expression, even more ‘expressive’ than the English!

  4. I am at a loss for words! Touche!

  5. A really good observation regarding water … 🙂 Language is funny!

    • Yes it is, isn’t it? I never tire of it. I can tell by the way you use it that you feel the same way about it. Thanks for your comments, Pradeep.

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