lightning in a bottle

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Mon Nov 1 11:48:12 UTC 2010

Not in OED.

CNN and others claim that the Democrats are "hoping to catch lightning in a
bottle" by surviving the prophesized [sic] annihilation tomorrow.

Early exx. on GB seem to refer exclusively and literally to Benjamin
Franklin's famous kite experiment.  What's a little surpising
is that the metaphorical phrase, meaning to "do the impossible; beat
tremendous odds; make a brilliant and unlikely success, etc." took so long
to become proverbial.

I haven't been exhaustive, but the earliest GB cite for "caught..." rather
than "catch..." doesn't occur till 1946:

1946 Bob Broeg & Robert Burrill _Don't Bring That Up!_  [N.Y.: A.S. Barnes]
243: Garrulous Leo Durocher, to whom words for once came hard, mumbled
repeatedly, "We caught lightning in a bottle, lightning in a bottle," an
expression gleaned from the poker table and one that vaguely meant the
explosive effect of a [snippet ends].

Had they thought the phrase well known, the authors wouldn't have associated
it with "the poker table."

Incredibly to me, NewspaperArchive gives only three exx. of "lightning in a
bottle," the earliest in 1961.  Chronicling America gives no results at all.

There are thousands and thousands of recent Google hits.

Not to be confised with _bottled lightning_, 'powerful alcoholic beverage.'


"If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list