The Grammarphobia Blog

“In like Flynn”

Q: I couldn’t get through to WNYC in time to comment on your discussion about the expression “in like Flynn.” It’s a reference to the extraordinary political staying power of Edward Flynn, chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party from 1922 until his death in 1953.

A: Thanks for writing, and for listening. There’s much conflicting evidence about the expression “in like Flynn,” and as of this writing, we don’t have a definitive answer.

The most common explanation, which may be erroneous, is that the expression originated in February 1943 in reference to Errol Flynn’s acquittal on charges of statutory rape. He had been indicted in late 1942, the trial took place in early 1943, and he was acquitted by a jury that February. Supposedly the phrase “in like Flynn” was an allusion to his legendary ability to misbehave free of consequences. In other words, he got away with it.

The problem with this theory is that the expression predates Flynn’s rape trial. During the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40, an official was quoted as telling a party of people who were to receive passes for a show, “Your name is Flynn … you’re in.” And a columnist in the San Francisco Examiner in early 1942 wrote: “Answer these questions correctly and your name is Flynn, meaning you’re in. …” (Of course, the actor had been a household name since “Captain Blood” in 1935, so these could have been roundabout references to him.)

A competing theory, advanced in a New York Times article a couple of years ago, is that “in like Flynn” originated as a reference to the Bronx Democratic machine politician Edward J. “Boss” Flynn (1892-1953), whose candidates always won. Flynn’s heyday was the 1930s. However, there’s no solid evidence that he’s the source.

The etymologist and researcher Barry Popik, whom I consulted about this problem, is dubious about both theories. He notes that there could even be a connection with Flynn’s Detective Weekly, a popular magazine in the 1920s and 1930s. But until there’s better evidence, we just can’t say.

Leonard Lopate’s explanation may be closer to the truth. Perhaps “in like Flynn” is yet another example of serendipitous rhyming slang that was already in existence and happened to attach itself to popular figures of the day.