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Lightning in a bottle

Q From George T. Mercer, Newton, MA: I’ve recently seen the phrase lightning in a bottle. It has appeared in recent book titles and in the title of a CD for a collection of the blues which I just saw yesterday. Can you tell me what it means and what the derivation of the phrase is?

A It’s a phrase that’s well known to many Americans. There’s also Martin Scorsese’s recent film of that title, featuring a benefit concert performance by 50 blues artists — presumably you saw the CD of the soundtrack that’s been issued.

Though it’s common, it doesn’t appear in any of my collections of catchphrases and aphorisms. The full expression is “like trying to catch lightning in a bottle”, sometimes “to keep lightning in a bottle”, and it describes something that’s extremely difficult, perhaps bordering on the impossible. It can express the idea that a person has succeeded in trapping the essence of some elusive creative process, which is presumably where the film title came from.

The phrase appears in sports reporting to describe a team that wins against difficult odds. This instance is from the Washington Post of 8 November 2004: “‘That’s how hard it is to win on the road,’ Cardinals first-year coach Dennis Green said. ‘You hope to have good fortune smile on you and catch lightning in a bottle, and today that happened for us.’”

A sporting connection is appropriate; the source appears to be baseball. I put in evidence a report in the Nevada State Journal for 8 October 1941, which said: “The Yanks were the dominant team throughout, outhitting, outfielding, outpitching and outmaneuvering the Dodgers. Brooklyn was not outgamed but the Dodgers, to use Lippy Leo Durocher’s favorite expression, went out to try to catch lightning in a bottle.”

Aha. Leo Durocher, as his nickname suggests, was a famously mouthy player who became a celebrated manager for the Dodgers. He’s credited with the saying “nice guys finish last” and it may well be that he invented your expression too. Either that, or — as with Yogi Berra — other people’s gems were attributed to him because he was known to have an inventive way with words.

Where he took his inspiration from is unrecorded. It might have been Ben Franklin’s famous experiment of flying a kite in a thunderstorm in order to charge a Leyden jar, an early form of capacitor.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 4 December 2004.