set the Thames on fire: Idiom Meaning and Origin

What does ‘set the Thames on fire’ mean?

The idiom "set the Thames on fire" means to do something extraordinary or outstanding that causes a great sensation or admiration.

Idiom Explorer


The idiom "set the Thames on fire" is an English expression that dates back to the late 18th century. It is used to describe a person's exceptional ability or achievement that surpasses all expectations. The idiom is often used in a sarcastic or ironic manner, emphasizing disbelief or skepticism towards someone's claims or abilities. Despite its widespread usage and longevity, the exact reason for using the Thames as a symbol remains a subject of speculation.

In 1824, the famous entertainer and showman, Sir William Congreve, announced his demonstration of a new incendiary device on the River Thames. The device was designed to create a spectacular display of fireworks, lighting up the river itself. However, the event ended in a disastrous failure, and the phrase "set the Thames on fire" quickly became associated with ambitious but unrealistic or unattainable goals. The idiom gained popularity in the 19th century and has since become a commonly used expression in the English language.

He might be clever but won't set the Thames on fire.

The idiom "set the world on fire" is closely related to "set the Thames on fire," as both phrases convey the idea of exceptional achievement or ability. While "set the Thames on fire" is often used sarcastically or ironically, "set the world on fire" is used to describe someone who is highly successful or influential in their field.

The idiom "kindle-fire" is another related expression that shares similarities with "set the Thames on fire." The phrase "kindle" means to ignite or start a fire, and when combined with "fire," it implies the idea of setting something ablaze or sparking a significant change or impact. Similar to "set the Thames on fire," "kindle-fire" is used to describe exceptional ability or achievement.

The origins of these idioms may have different roots, but they all share a common theme of exceptional accomplishment. Whether it's igniting the Thames, setting the world on fire, or kindling a fire, these expressions capture the imagination and evoke a sense of wonder at the possibility of surpassing expectations and achieving something extraordinary.

The idiom "set the Thames on fire" is a testament to the power of linguistic imagery and cultural references. While its origins may be rooted in a specific event, its enduring popularity and usage have transformed it into a universal expression of exceptional achievement or ability. Whether used sarcastically or earnestly, the idiom continues to ignite the imagination and evoke a sense of wonder and awe.

Example usage

Examples of how the idiom "set the Thames on fire" can be used in a sentence:

  1. She is a talented musician, but she hasn't set the Thames on fire yet.
  2. The new product didn't set the Thames on fire, but it did receive positive feedback from customers.
  3. Although he had high hopes for his novel, it failed to set the Thames on fire and quickly went out of print.

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