Does “in like Flynn” refer to Errol Flynn’s success with women?

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Dear Cecil: 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


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Oh? Consider the common expression, “we’re screwed.” You think the true meaning of this phrase is, “we’re attached with rotary fasteners”?

The real question is whether people would have used phrases having a sexual connotation in the 1940s, when “in like Flynn” became 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. For that matter, I’ve never heard her say “we’re screwed.”

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 students 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. (4) Then again, maybe Miller’s students just didn’t feel like proclaiming otherwise in the middle of class.

No question, a lot of people think the phrase means in like Flynn’s you know what, and with good reason. 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?

An alternative 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’s 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 have to do our part.

In like Flynn: The sinful truth

Dear Cecil:

At the end of your column about the “Flynn flap” you invited us seventysomethings to offer what we could to the pool of human knowledge. Born in the Bronx in 1926, I lived there until age 16, which coincides with your critical year, 1942 [when Flynn was tried for statutory rape]. I never heard, or at least I don’t remember, Boss Flynn’s name coming up. But I and all my friends freely bandied about “in like Flynn.” There is no doubt in my mind that it referred to his success with women.

— Murray Lefkowitz, Merion Station, Pennsylvania

Dear Cecil:

I [was] 70 in October, so I hope my recollections will carry some weight.  … It was the double entendre involved that accounted for the phrase’s popularity. Young males could smirkingly use it in front of females, who then started applying it to other situations without necessarily knowing its original meaning. As I recall, my brothers and I even got our mother to use it, which was especially amusing since she hated Errol Flynn with a passion. I was in the army air corps in World War II, and we all knew the phrase had nothing to do with Flynn’s cinematic feats.

— G. R. Niles, Honolulu, Hawaii

Jeez, when even Grandpa is arguing for the risque interpretation, it’s time to throw in the towel. Apparently “in like Flynn” really does refer to Errol’s success in the sack.

Something we need to get straight

Dear Cecil:

You recently referred to Errol Flynn’s schwanz. As an Irishman, my Yiddish is nicht so gut, but I seem to recall hearing Jewish buddies voice their desire to sink a shlong (it’s what it sounds like) into the schwanz (tail) of some shapely female passerby.

— Roger O’Connor, Falls Church, Virginia

Cecil replies

Every dictionary I consulted says schwanz means penis, but I’ll concede there may be some people who understand it to mean the female organ. The Straight Dope apologizes for any romantic mishaps this may have occasioned.

Cecil Adams

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