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Lead balloon

Posted by Smokey Stover on December 04, 2003

In Reply to: Lead balloon posted by Smokey Stover on December 03, 2003

: : What is the origin of 'go down like a lead balloon', meaning not go down well at all. Surely a balloon made of lead would go down (as in sink) very well. Or does it mean deflate, which a balloon made of metal would not do?

: Try: 'Went over like a lead balloon.' I've never heard 'go down like a lead balloon.' It mixes two figures. "Go down" is sometimes used in the sense "go down smoothly, like a good drink or a nice warm glass of milk," that is, be received as welcome. The "a lead balloon" figure is usually used with "went over like." SS

My answer or explanation needs a little amplification. "Go down" can be used figuratively in more than one way, but I believe that as used here it always implies swallowing something. It requires an adverb or adverbial phrase or adverbial clause, and can be used negatively as well as positively, as in, "goes down like a glass of cyanide." If a simile is used, its subject really should be something that can be swallowed. This not true of "go over." A joke, a statement, a plan, an announcement, all can go over well or badly, depending on the reception they get. Here, too, an adverb, adverbial phrase, or adverbial clause is in order. One of the most common is the simile, "like a lead balloon." A balloon is something festive and welcome, unless it is made of lead and falls. One can imagine a leaden silence as the employees, let's say, hear of the new round of layoffs. The announcement of this would certainly go over like a lead balloon--very unfestively. But how the primary meaning of "go over" turned into the figurative meaning I cannot explain. SS

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