What’s a squib?

Word count: 240 words

Reading time: About 1 minute

If you increase your vocabulary you’ll not only help your reading, you’ll also make your writing more precise. Here is my word of the week, squib.

I have heard the word “squib” dozens of times — almost always with the adjective “damp,” in front of it. I never knew the meaning of the term except that I understood it was derogatory and thought, perhaps, it implied weakness. I encountered it again, recently, on the pages of the New Yorker in an article, headlined “Diminuendo” by Alex Ross.

Here is the sentence: “The most ambitious undertaking of the [Peter] Gelb era, Robert Lepage’s production of Wagner’s “Ring,” is a very damp squib.”

It turns out that a squib is a miniature explosive device (pictured above) used in a wide range of industries from the motion pictures (think of special effects) to the military. While most modern squibs used by professionals are insulated, older uninsulated squibs needed to be kept dry in order to ignite. As a result, a “damp squib” was  one that failed to perform because it had become wet. Sometimes misheard as “damp squid”, the phrase “damp squib” has since come into general use to mean anything that fails to meet expectations.

My dictionary of etymology says the origins are unknown but dates the word back to the 1520s.