Glossary Home Idioms

Go down in flames

“Go down in flames” is an English idiom that’s used to describe a miserable failure. It could also result in a spectacle of some kind.

If someone or something goes down in flames, then it has failed irretrievably. It’s unclear when or where the phrase “go down in flames” first originated, but it’s thought that it was in common use by the 1940s in the midst of World War II. This might make sense considering how common seeing plane crashes during this period was.

Go down in flames meaning and origin

Meaning of “Go down in flames”

The phrase “go down in flames” is used to describe a failure, one that is complete and total. It might also be dramatic in some way.

The “flames” are an image of destruction as well as a spectacle. One might create the latter in an attempt to show their displeasure at losing, or the metaphorical flames might be part of the loss. For example, working incredibly hard at something until you fail and doing so in a dramatic fashion.

It’s possible to use this phrase in different contexts, but most commonly, it’s used to describe something negative. No one really wants to “go down in flames” if they can avoid it. But, if failure is the only option, some might choose to embrace the loss and make it memorable.

Origin of “Go down in flames”

Like many idioms, this phrase does not have a clear origin. It’s thought to have originated sometime around the 1940s when fiery, crashing aircraft (during WII) were a common sight throughout Europe and Great Britain. But, it’s not entirely clear if this is the case or not. It’s far more uncommon to know the entire history of an idiom and be able to clearly date it back to its first use or coinage than it is to be in the dark about where a particular phrase came from.

When to Use “Go down in flames”

“Go down in flames” is a commonly used idiom that appears in a variety of contexts. It could be used in conversations between friends, family members, and close colleagues, or it might be used in more formal settings to describe a loss or failure. The latter, for example, could include a company board member discussing how their project is going to “go down in flames” if they don’t get a particular task done. In another context, the phrase could be used to describe a friend who, in an effort not to lose a competition or contest, ends up working themselves to exhaustion and “going down in flames.”

There doesn’t necessarily need to be a spectacle involved in the failure, but when there is one, the phrase seems more fitting. That being said, it’s also used as a way to discussing just how total a failure was. If there is any chance of a mistake being rectified, then the event, person, or thing has not gone down in flames.

Example Sentences

  • She totally went down in flames.
    If I’m going to lose this race, then I’m going to go down in flames.
  • Be careful. He told me that he’s planning to go down in flames.
  • It’s those who are willing to go down in flames who eventually succeed.
  • Going down in flames is just part of the risk.

Why Do Writers Use the Phrase?

Writers use “go down in flames” in the same way and for the same reasons that people use the idiom in everyday conversation. Often, writers include colloquialisms, like idioms and proverbs, in their writing when they want to make dialogue feel more natural. A phrase like this is used quite commonly and easily in real-life conversations, and therefore it could be useful to include in one’s writing. For example, one character might use it in a piece of dialogue when describing what another character is going to do. It could be used as a warning, an unavoidable outcome, or a simple description of what’s going to happen without emotion or drama.


Why do people use “go down in flames?”

People use “go down in flames” when they want to describe a complete and total failure. It’s often used when someone spectacularly fails in a way that’s memorable. The flames are a symbol of the spectacle.

Where did “go down in flames” come from?

The phrase likely originated during the Second World War. Crashing planes were a regular sight during this period. This might’ve inspired people to start using the idiom.

Can I use “go down in flames” in conversations?

Yes, this idiom is quite commonly used in everyday conversations. You should be afraid to use it, but you should be aware that it could be taken as an insult if you predict that someone is going to meet this fate.

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