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In like Flynn

Q From Gustavo Bruckner: What is the derivation of in like Flynn?

A Reference books almost universally assert that this set phrase, an American expression meaning to be successful emphatically or quickly, especially in regard to sexual seduction, refers to the Australian-born actor Errol Flynn. His drinking, drug-taking and sexual exploits were renowned, even for Hollywood, but the phrase is said to have been coined following his acquittal in February 1943 for the statutory rape of a teenage girl. This seems to be supported by the date of the first example recorded, in American Speech in December 1946, which cited a 1945 use in the sense of something being done easily.

The trouble with this explanation is that examples of obviously related expressions have now turned up from dates before Flynn’s trial. Barry Popik of the American Dialect Society found an example from 1940, as well as this from the sports section of the San Francisco Examiner of 8 February 1942: “Answer these questions correctly and your name is Flynn, meaning you’re in, provided you have two left feet and the written consent of your parents”. To judge from a newspaper reference he turned up from early 1943, the phrase could by then also be shortened to I’m Flynn, meaning “I’m in”.

It’s suggested by some writers that the phrase really originated with another Flynn, Edward J Flynn — “Boss” Flynn — a campaign manager for the Democratic party during FDR’s presidency. Flynn’s machine in the South Bronx in New York was so successful at winning elections that his candidates seemed to get into office automatically.

The existence of the examples found by Mr Popik certainly suggest the expression was at first unconnected with Errol Flynn, but that it shifted its association when he became such a notorious figure. Since then, it has altered again, because in 1967 a film, In Like Flint, a spy spoof starring James Coburn, took its title by wordplay from the older expression, and in turn caused many people to think that the phrase was really in like Flint.

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Page created 11 Sep 1999; Last updated 09 Dec 2000