Damp squib

squidSo it’s not “damp squid”, as I’d always thought. This is another one to put in my little box of misunderstood phrases (see “country pumpkin” in the comments of my post on accents). What led me to look into this expression, used by David Cameron to describe the biggest public sector strike since the 70s, was that I heard it translated as un pétard mouillé (a damp banger) on the French radio. I was all pleased. Nothing like a lovely translation on the news to make me smile. In fact, this was an example of a French translation far surpassing the quality of the original English metaphor. Honestly, “damp squid”? Of course squids are damp, they live in the sea! Why should this describe an anticlimax?
Because, of course, it’s not “damp squid”, but “damp squib”. A squib is a miniature explosive, which looks a lot like a… pétard (banger).
Thankfully, I’m not alone in mangling common expressions: see the top 10 misquoted phrases in Britain.
Squid photo by Queen of subtle.

By |2011-12-02T09:38:57+00:00December 2nd, 2011|Idioms|7 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Anne de Freyman December 2, 2011 at 10:49 am

    Join the club Céline. I too thought it was “damp squid” up until David Cameron set the record straight. Maybe most of the linguistically mistaken nation reflected on the actual expression rather than its aptness, or not as the case may be, to describe the situation. Just because it’s you I shall admit that I used to say “bus-stop” (a very long time ago I hasten to add) instead of “bust up” and I couldn’t understand why people had bus-stops with their friends, just like I couldn’t understand the reasoning behind “damp squid” but put it down to the wonders of a language which uses cats and dogs to describe rain!

  2. céline December 2, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Ha ha bus-stop! Brilliant!

  3. Elisa December 2, 2011 at 11:01 am

    Lovely blog post as usual.
    I was talking possible Italian translations of ‘damp squib’ with my mum just last night – the only thing we could come up with was ‘flop’, but that was not very satisfactory….

  4. céline December 2, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Thanks Elisa 🙂
    There doesn’t seem to be a colourful equivalent in Spanish either…

  5. Miguel Llorens December 3, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Your post is a nice example of an “eggcorn,” a term invented by the linguists at The Language Log to describe a generalized misquotation of a famous phrase or proverb. Here is the wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eggcorn

  6. Helen December 4, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    That word caught my attention last week too, as it is one of my Mum’s favourite expressions and I always found it funny as a child! My Mum peppers her speech with proverbs and expressions, with another of her favourites being “there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip”.

  7. Xavier December 6, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    I knew about damp squib ever since I’d noticed how close it was to “pétard mouillé”.
    But in the list quoted by the Telegraph, I plead guilty to having used “alll that glitters is not gold’ and “champing at the bit”. Up to now, that is. Never again !
    BTW ( off topic perhaps but concerning squids) : there’s also, of course, the sick squid. To see one, just put a pound coin on a fiver.

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