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What Is an Old Flame?

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  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2014
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For most English speakers, the term “an old flame” is so familiar that its meaning is seldom questioned. When the individual words that make up this term are examined, however, it quickly becomes clear that it is an idiom, or an expression with a meaning that cannot be deduced by studying its constituent parts. While it may not be obvious to non-native English speakers, an old flame is a former love interest. The origins of this expression are not clear.

“An old flame” is an idiom, or an expression which cannot be understood by studying the literal meaning of the words which comprise it. Other examples of common English-language idioms include “bent out of shape,” “under the weather,” and “kick the bucket.” Individuals learning a foreign language often find interpreting idioms to be a greater challenge than mastering grammatical rules or learning verb conjugations. This is because the words which constitute an idiom are not to be taken literally, and therefore even a perfect translation of an idiom’s individual words does not shed light on their combined meaning. Sometimes, however, the meaning of an idiom can be deduced by considering the context in which it is used.

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English speakers use the term “an old flame” to refer to a former love interest. The use of the word “flame” within the expression refers not, of course, to a literal flame, but rather to the figurative “heat” or passion with which one once regarded his former love interest. Similarly, “old,” within this idiom, refers not to age, but rather to the fact that the relationship between the “flame” and the individual who once regarded her with passion has passed. Some might argue, however, that referring to someone as an old flame means that while the relationship with that person is no longer current, the feeling of passion toward her persists. In other words, while the “flame” may be “old,” it has not yet “gone out.”

The exact origins of the expression “an old flame” are uncertain. Etymologists, or experts in the study of word origins, believe that the term has been in common usage since the mid-19th century, and perhaps even earlier. It is likely the expression emerged shortly after the word “flame” began to be commonly used to refer to a current love interest.

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anon973486
Post 3

In the Divine Comedy, upon seeing Beatrice in Paradiso for the first time since her earthly existence, Dante says ..."I am left with less / than one drop of my blood that does not tremble. / I recognized the signs of the old flame." (Paradiso XXX, 46-48, tr. Mandelbaum). I do not know whether "l'antica fiamma" in Dante's words came to any idiomatic usage for an old love, but I am guessing the translation may have had that impact for English (readers and) speakers.

PS: “I recognize / the signs of the old flame, of old desire” (Aeneid IV.31–32). Dido remembers her previous marriage: “the thought of the torch and the bridal bed” (IV.25).

So the term goes further back, and Dante in Paradiso XXX was paying a homage to Virgil. In Dido's case, the old flame was the flame of desire. Her new love, Aeneas, was a newcomer to Carthage. Dante's reference was to a woman he loved long ago and who had been dead for several years.

AnswerMan
Post 2

@Inaventu- I understand where you're coming from on this. If I were still married, I'd have to think long and hard before reuniting with an old flame, even if it were completely platonic. I wouldn't mind catching up with some people from my past, but I'd still have to keep in mind that we've both grown up and have taken different roads.

I did try to rekindle one old flame after my wife passed away several years ago. We were in the same high school class, and our reunion was coming up in a year or so. I found out she was divorced, and I was a widower. Back in high school, we were inseparable, and I always thought we would end up getting married some day. Unfortunately, she met another man at her out-of-state college, and we decided it was best to break up.

At the reunion, we spent a long time catching up on things, but it was like talking to someone I barely knew. I thought reconnecting with an old flame would stir up the same strong feelings, but it really didn't. We had our time together years ago, and now it was truly over for both of us.

Inaventu
Post 1

I've often thought about reconnecting with an old flame, but then I remember that our relationship ended for a reason. We were either too young when we met, or at least one of us wasn't ready for a long-term relationship at the time. Now I'm in a good marriage that has lasted over 30 years, and I could never hurt my wife by thinking about rekindling an old flame. Those women were important at different points in my earlier life, but I have to let them stay in the past.

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