lightning in a bottle

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Originally (19th century) a literal reference to Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment, capturing electricity from lightning and storing it in a Leyden jar, along with variants such as bottled lightning.[1] Later used in baseball context in sense “difficult feat”, from circa 1941, attributed to Leo Durocher.[2] Wider use grew in 1980s and 1990s, particularly in sense “great, fleeting success”, and popular since 2000s.[2]


lightning in a bottle ‎(uncountable)

  1. (idiomatic) A difficult or challenging feat, particularly to attempt such a feat.
    • 1941, Nevada State Journal, 8 October 1941:[2]
      The Yanks were the dominant team throughout, outhitting, outfielding, outpitching and outmaneuvering the Dodgers. Brooklyn was not outgamed but the Dodgers, to use Lippy Leo Durocher’s favorite expression, went out to try to catch lightning in a bottle.
    • 1992, Herbert F. Crehan, Lightning in a Bottle: The Sox of ’67:
      Their fate remained in doubt until the very last game of the season. This truly was a team that captured lightning in a bottle.
  2. (idiomatic) Great, unlikely, fleeting success, particularly entrepreneurial or media.
  3. (idiomatic) Ephemeral state or atmosphere, as at startup company or artistic group.
  4. (Can we verify(+) this sense?) (obsolete) Stored electricity, as in a capacitor.
    • 1829, The Lancet, Volume 1, p. 230:
      Were you to tell a savage that you could navigate the air, that you could explode the solid granite—that you could shut up the lightning in a bottle—…
    • 1867, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 34, p. 128:
      But they say Franklin succeeded in putting lightning in a bottle and corking it.” “Oh yes Sir; I have often seen what they called ‘bottled lightning’ down in Jersey, but I believe it has never been successfully used in telegraphing!”

Usage notes[edit]

Most often used in verb phrase “try to catch lightning in a bottle” or variants, like “capture”, though also used alone as noun phrase.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ bottled lightning also used idiomatically to mean “liquor”.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Lightning in a bottle”, World Wide Words, Michael Quinion, 4 Dec 2004.
  • The Shocking Stories Behind Lightning in a Bottle and Other Idioms, Arnold Ringstad, 2012, Childs World Incorporated, ISBN 978-1-61473236-5