set the Thames on fire



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]


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set the Thames on fire (third-person singular simple present sets the Thames on fire, present participle setting the Thames on fire, simple past and past participle 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 notesEdit

Often used with a negation.



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