set the Thames on fire

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Unknown. Suggested to derive from a misconstrual of temse (sieve): thus, to work so vigorously as to heat a sieve by friction. Alternatively, a reference to lightning strikes which sometimes occurred along the Thames, occasionally setting trees on fire or causing death in unusual manner.[1]


  • (file)


set the Thames on fire

  1. (idiomatic) To achieve something amazing; to do something which brings great public acclaim.
    • 1816, Jane Austen, Persuasion, Borders Classics 2007, p. 27:
      The baronet will never set the Thames on fire, but there seems no harm in him.
    • 1884, WS Gilbert, ‘Princess Ida’, The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan, Oxford University Press 1996, p. 491:
      They intend to send a wire / To the moon — to the moon; / And they'll set the Thames on fire / Very soon — very soon
    • 1925, GK Chesterton, ‘The Ultimate Ultimatum of the League of the Long Bow’, The Collected Works, Ignatius Press 2005, p. 402:
      Do you remember when you jumped into the water after the flowers? I fancy it was then you really set the Thames on fire.
    • 1985, Tom Waits, ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’:
      My head is spinning round / my heart is in my shoes, yeah / I went and set the Thames on fire, oh / now I must come back down.

Usage notes[edit]

Often used with a negation.



  1. ^ 2007, Peter Ackroyd, Thames: Sacred River, page 391.