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Definition: A small firework that hisses and produces a small explosion, and a witty remark – similar in both meaning and sound to ‘quip‘.

Pronunciation: squib

Origin: The origin is uncertain – but it does seem to date to the 16th century.

Why this word?

A ‘damp squib’ is a phrase that we’ve probably all encountered. It means something of which more was expected. It is easy to see where this phrase came from. A squib is a firework and a good firework requires a good bang. If it is damp, however, there will be precisely no bangs for your buck. Thus, a damp squib can refer to anything that promises more than it actually delivers.

Recently, I had heard a media story referred to as a ‘damp squib’. I realised that although I knew the phrase, I had no idea what the word ‘squib’ itself meant – be it damp, dry or in any other state of hydration.

How to use this word:

In its simplest form, you can use the word squib to talk about fireworks. You can ask someone after a display if they liked the large, garish fireworks or are more a fan of the squib – something particularly appropriate at New Year.

As discussed, squib also means a witty remark. Thus, the next time someone tries to verbally ‘one-up’ you by attempting wit, you can congratulate them on their squib deployment, thus proving who, linguistically speaking, the real ‘daddy’ is.


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Written by Sean Carabini

Seán Carabini is a Dublin-based author. To date, Seán has written the humorous travel memoirs 'Sticking Out in Minnesota' and 'American Road', as well as 'American Road: The poems' - a book of travel poetry related to the memoir. Seán has also developed a podcast based on the book - subscribe to the American Road podcast today! Seán is a committee member of the Irish Writers' Union.

Chrissy Skelton is Seán Carabini's editor. A graduate of the University of Minnesota's Anthropology programme, Chrissy emerged armed with an arsenal of little-known words and cumbersome jargon - all of which will now be off-loaded onto 'unusedwords' readers!


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