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I would like to know what is the meaning of the expression "wet flannel" referred to a person or personality trait. I have seen it mentioned here:

http://www.conservativehome.com/localgovernment/2012/06/labour-councillor-quits-saying-ed-miliband-is-wet-flannel.html

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  • it's a synonym of killjoy and wet blanket.
    – vickyace
    Apr 19, 2014 at 16:00

5 Answers 5

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To fully understand the meaning of wet flannel when applied to a person I think you need to be 'of a certain age' and possibly from the UK. That age being before the introduction of modern materials and tumble dryers.

A flannel can either mean a soft material, usually quite expensive for clothing, or it can mean a simple washcloth made of cheap harsh materials for cleaning dishes and just as often for cleaning your face in the morning.

There are one or two other meanings of flannel and one meaning that could introduce confusion in this particular instance (of a politician) and that definition is "to talk in an evasive manner, or overly flattering manner" but that is not related.

Used in wet flannel it means the cheap, harsh washcloth material.

Here comes the history

Prior to the invention of modern synthetic fabrics a washcloth was made out of some rough cotton (but felt like it was barbed wire when your mother scrubbed your face with it).

Without the aid of tumble dryers washcloths would be dried on a radiator, in the airing cupboard or on the (open) fire guard. When fully dried they were as stiff as a board.

A dry flannel was particularly hard and rough, nearly comparable to a dry chamois leather.

When moistened it would lose it's shape and become pliable, easily taking the shape of whatever object you place it upon.

This lack of rigidity and pliability are the keys to the meaning of wet flannel.

History lesson complete

A person described as a wet flannel is someone who has the qualities of a wet flannel while the qualities looked for in a person are closer to those of a dry flannel (but the dry version is not used as a comparison as far as I know).

Ed Milliband is the leader of the UK's Labour Party (a political party currently in opposition).

A person in that position is expected to take a position (politically) and stick with it, supporting those around him, full of courage and valor, to have some spirit, to stand up for what they believe in. Another term in English is 'to have a backbone' or 'have some spine', the opposite would be 'to be spineless'.

Calling someone a wet flannel doesn't really suggest they have the properties of a wet flannel except perhaps that they are pliable, softer, and can't (or won't) stand up for themselves. It is much more suggestive of them being unsupportive, easily backing down, easily persuaded to change their mind and generally being weak both physically and in spirit.

It is not a terribly offensive term for the ordinary man but for a politician these kinds of descriptions can sometimes 'stick', particularly with the press and can be quite damaging to their careers.

**I have no particular bias in UK politics as it doesn't affect me.

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Wet blankets used to put out fires were often made of flannel:

blanket (n.) c.1300, "bed-clothing; white woolen stuff," from Old French blanchet "light wool or flannel cloth; an article made of this material," diminutive of blanc "white" (see blank (adj.), which had a secondary sense of "a white cloth." Wet blanket (1830) is from the notion of a person who throws a damper on social situations like a wet blanket smothers a fire. In U.S. history, a blanket Indian (1859) was one using the traditional garment instead of wearing Western dress.

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Wet flannel can mean a person who spoils other people's fun by failing to join in with or by disapproving of their activities.

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    I think that definition is more suited to 'wet blanket' and can be used to describe things other than people spoiling the fun. Wet flannel is more often used to describe someone lacking in spunk (as in confidence not semen although ...), a bit spineless, a pushover, lacking fibre.
    – Frank
    Apr 19, 2014 at 16:12
  • yeah, but it does the work for the one in doubt. thanks for the "wet flannel" definition. I learned something new.
    – vickyace
    Apr 19, 2014 at 16:30
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In my opinion, if you come across a figurative reference to wet flannel the primary "meaning" you can derive from it is that the speaker is atypical, and doesn't know the standard expression...

such a wet blanket 11,700 hits in Google Books
such a wet flannel one result

Note that even that one result is "dubious". A single book title is listed, but GB doesn't actually show the search term in context as it supposedly occurs there. The only actual citation is something off the Internet, from an obviously somewhat illiterate blogger.


TL;DR: wet flannel is just an erroneous version of wet blanket, defined by OED as
a person or thing that throws a damper over anything, as a wet blanket smothers fire.

Per comments below, the closely-related but much rarer wet dishcloth is generally used to mean wimpish, indecisive (though it may be influenced by the equally rare as wet as dishwater, which I assume is a variant of as dull as dishwater/ditchwater).

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  • '... a wet dishcloth' is the variant I was familiar with here in the NW of England 50 years ago. We probably didn't have flannels. Apr 19, 2014 at 19:50
  • @Edwin: My impression is wet dishcloth is used more to mean someone is wimpish, dithery (as opposed to wet blanket = killjoy). If that's true then arguably it's really a different expression, rather than a "variant", but to be honest I've not heard flannel very often and I don't use it myself, so I might be wrong there. There are currently no votes at all on this entire page, so we may be short on opinions from people familiar with both expressions - but I've just noticed and upvoted Frank's comment to vickyace's answer above, which I think is correct. Apr 20, 2014 at 12:06
  • ...anyway, I'm sorry to hear you didn't have flannels back in the day. In our house when I was a kid we used to save all our burnt toast scrapings and used toilet paper to send to the poor folks "oop North", but nobody ever mentioned that you might be short of wet flannels too! :) Apr 20, 2014 at 12:15
  • Thank you. But they never reached us. The bandits in Sherwood probably nicked them. Waxing serious, I'd agree with your distinction between 'wet blanket' = killjoy and 'wet dishcloth' = wimp. So 'damp-drapery-vehicled idiom'. Apr 20, 2014 at 13:11
  • @Edwin: I just noticed I wrote flannel above where what I meant to say was I've not heard wet dishcloth very often (and so far as I can recall, I've never heard wet flannel at all). Whatever - we've got a couple of upvotes here now (either or both yours?). One of them is for WS's answer which seems to imply flannel is a valid variant of blanket (i.e. - they both have the same meaning), but since I can't find any instances in Google Books to check usage in context (and I doubt it would be in any dictionaries), I don't see any easy way to investigate further. Apr 20, 2014 at 13:23
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I am familiar with all of the following sayings, describing people as: ‘a wet blanket’, ‘wet’, ‘a wet dishcloth’, ‘a wet dishrag’ and ‘a damp dishcloth’ or ‘damp dishrag’. I am British and heard them said by my family and the older generation (so from around or pre WWII period). As others have said, the first phrase (‘wet blanket’) means ‘to put a dampener’ on a situation, similar to a ‘party pooper’.In my experience, all the other phrases mean someone is spineless, ‘drippy’ or pathetic. (Therefore agreeing with Frank et al)

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