What is the origin of the phrase “in like Flynn”? I have heard it alludes to the sexual exploits of the actor Errol Flynn but have a difficult time believing a reference so graphic could have become a common catchphrase.

–Joe Lubben, Oberlin, Ohio

Just shows how out of it you are, Joe. Most people today have no problem believing this. Most people today would have no problem believing Mother Teresa does it with goats.

The question is whether people believed it in the 1940s, when this expression is known to have been common. To determine this we apply the “mom” test. This consists of asking ourselves, “Would my mom consciously use an expression meaning, ‘In as surely as Errol Flynn gets his Buick parked in some young innocent’s garage?”‘

Maybe your mom would. Mine would sooner die.

Let us review the evidence.

The earliest known use of “in like Flynn” in print is in the December 1946 issue of American Speech. Penn State prof Ed Miller reported that sti udents of his who had served in the army air force during World War II used the expression to mean, “Everything is OK.’ In other words, the pilot is having no more trouble than Errol Flynn has in his cinematic feats.”

From this we learn several things: (1) The expression was of recent origin. Had it been widely used in the 1930s Miller would not have included it in a list of World War II slang. (2) The term was generally understood to refer to Errol Flynn. (3) It didn’t necessarily refer to Flynn’s success with women.

Sure, maybe Miller was just hearing the expurgated version. Flynn, a popular film star in the 1930s, became notorious in November 1942 when he was charged with two counts of statutory rape. Though acquitted he was the butt of jokes ever after.

One film bio none too subtly comments, “Warner Brothers . . . found [Flynn’s] popularity not only had held but had a new spurt of interest. A new phrase was added to the English language: ‘In like Flynn”‘ (Tony Thomas et al, The Films of Errol Flynn, 1969).

Another says the posttrial Flynn became a “wild man of the mattress. The slogan ‘In like Flynn’ rose like smoke from the trial and ran laughingly around the globe” (Earl Conrad, Errol Flynn: A Memoir, 1978).

An Australian playwright (Flynn was born in Australia) even claimed the expression “in like Errol” was current in his country for a time (Alexander Buzo, Rooted, 1973).

But still. These guys were writing after the sexual revolution of the 1960s. In like Flynn’s schwanz? In the 1940s?

A more plausible interpretation comes from A Dictionary of Catch Phrases (Eric Partridge, 1986). Edward J. Flynn (1892-1953) was a New York City political boss who became a campaign manager for the Democratic party during FDR’s presidency. Boss Flynn’s “Democratic Party machine exercised absolute political control over the Bronx . . . . The candidates he backed were almost automatically ‘in,’ and he himself permanently so,” Partridge comments.

Now we have the beginnings of a theory. “In like Flynn” starts as rhyming slang in New York, helped along by the prominence of Boss Flynn. NYC draftees spread it among the troops nationwide with the start of World War II. The phrase gets a boost when the well-publicized travails of Errol Flynn in 1942 give it a double meaning. But its innocent origin allows Cecil’s mom to use it without being scandalized.

Just one thing. We have no evidence that “in like Flynn” was used anywhere prior to November 1942.

So I appeal to the Teeming Millions. OK, so you pretty much made hash out of “the whole nine yards.” Here is a chance to redeem yourselves. I know of the Straight Dope’s abiding popularity among septuagenarians. If you have personal knowledge of “in like Flynn” having been used prior to 1942, or even better if you have written proof, send it in.

Not saying this ranks with the search for the quark. But human knowledge is human knowledge, and we all gotta do our part.


Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611; E-mail him at cecil@chireader.com; or visit the Straight Dope area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Slug Signorino.

Cecil Adams is the world’s most intelligent human being. We know this because: (1) he knows everything, and (2) he is never wrong. For more, see The Straight Dope website and FAQ.