What Does “Go Down In Flames” Mean? When And How to Use It

what does go down in flames mean

Witnessing a fire accident and seeing things crumble in front of your eyes is not a pleasant sight. The intensity of the conflagration could be so high that being anywhere close to the blaze can be hazardous. However, the thing that’s even more debilitating is to see someone’s hopes or dreams going down in flames or experiencing the feeling yourself.

The phrase “go down in flames” denotes “total failure” or “being shattered to no recourse or revival”. The idiom can be used in texts both literally and figuratively – the metaphoric use is more common. The saying is relatively recent, supposedly having been born sometime around the Second World War.

The term “go down in flames” can be phrased as “go down in smoke”, and its tense could also be modified as per your convenience or a sentence’s requirements. If you’d like to learn more about the expression, its meaning, origin, how to use it in your texts, other ways to incorporate the adage in your sentences, keep reading.

plane goes down in flames

“Go Down in Flames” – Meaning

The phrase “go down in flames” denotes “to fail miserably” or “utterly ruined”. The “downfall” or negative impact is typically so significant, it becomes almost impossible for the affected or the impacted to rise again. The idiom could also refer to an actual fire and the mayhem caused by it. But then, such usage is not that common as there are several other ways or phrases to denote the same.

Idioms or terms that could mean the same thing or be related in meaning to “go down in flames” include “burst into flames”, “end completely/suddenly”, “fail spectacularly”, “be utterly ruined”, “go down the drain”, “go down in smoke”, “crash and burn”, etc.

Origin of the Phrase

The expression alludes to or is based on the thought of a plane crashing to the base and burning. The crashed plane cannot be revived, reused, or salvaged.

The term “go down in flames” supposedly originated during the 1940s, when it was a common sight to see combat aircraft engaging in war with each other and going down in flames at the end of the mid-air altercation. It was rare to see two fighter aircrafts going at each other and neither going down.

But it’s not just airplanes that go down in flames. Any structure, such as a building or skyscraper, could also “go down in flames”.

Difference Between “Go Down in Flames” and “Go Up in Flames”

The two phrases are pretty similar in meaning, denoting “destruction”. However, “go down in flames” is used in texts more as a metaphor than “go up in flames”, which is mostly incorporated in sentences for its literal meaning. Businesses can “go down in flames”. “Hopes”, “dreams”, etc., can go down in flames as well. They usually do not “go up in flames”.

When the phrase “go up in flames” is used, the reader is expected to visualize the rising flames.

Here are a couple of sentences incorporating “go down” and “go up” correctly:

  • Despite all the promotion and marketing done by the movie’s producers, the film went down in flames.
  • I cannot believe she left the microwave on. Was she hoping the house went up in flames?

But since it’s also okay to use “go down in flames” to denote “a fire accident”, here is a sentence using the phrase in that context:

  • The battle came to an end after all the enemy fighter aircraft engaged in the armed dispute went down in flames.

“Go up in flames” or “go up in smoke” could be used in place of “go down in flames” in texts at times. But because “go up in flames” is not used figuratively often and is usually identified with actual fire, it could be misconstrued in texts where it’s used as a metaphor.

“Go up in flames” is often the correct phrasing for a fire accident because fire smoke is lighter than air and moves up instead of floating or traveling down.

Another Pertinent Comparison

Kindly note, while “go down in flames” and “go down in smoke” mean similar things and can be used in texts interchangeably, the same cannot be said about “go up in smoke” and “go up in fire”.

“Go up in smoke” means to “be wasted” or “disappear”. It could also be incorporated in texts to denote “destroyed by fire”, but “go up in fire” is usually the correct phrase to convey that.

When something “goes up in smoke”, it leaves zero traces behind. “All for naught” is a phrase closely related in meaning to “go up in smoke”. That, however, isn’t the case with “go up in fire”.

fireman puts out a fire

In the sentence below, “go/went up in smoke” cannot be replaced by “go up in fire” or “go up in flames” as they won’t make any sense or won’t be semantically correct:

  • Her lifelong ambition to become a physician went up in smoke after realizing she couldn’t withstand seeing blood for even a few seconds.
  • My dream of becoming a firefighter almost went up in smoke when I failed the physical performance test for the third consecutive time.

Also, “go up in smoke” exists as a proper phrase”. “Go down in smoke” is not a recognized phrase and is essentially an improvised version of the actual term.

Using “Go Down in Flames” in Texts

When someone or something is referred to as “going down in flames” or described as “gone down in flames”, the particular individual or thing has failed or is leading toward failure. For example:

  • The entire project was down in flames.
  • The team went down in flames once the corrupt management and the players’ resistance to them became public.

When someone or something “goes down in flames” (figuratively), they take a massive hit because something significant could be at stake. Individuals or entities that are in a “do-or-die” situation usually “go down in flames” when they fail to perform or “do” what’s expected of them.

As mentioned above, “go down in flames” could be used in texts for its literal meaning. The term is typically used plainly in relation with physical objects, such as planes and buildings.

Also, the thing that’s going down in flames is usually not grounded or not attached to its base. It’s, therefore, quite common to see the term being used when referring to aircrafts. For example:

  • The airplane is going down in flames.

If the subject is a building or any structure that’s firmly attached to its base and is not moving, the phrase “go up in flames” is typically used to denote a fire hazard or accident.

The phrase’s tense or wording could be changed based on the sentence, its construct, or for convenience. For example:

  • The erstwhile government’s mega project went down in flames immediately after it lost the election. The newly elected government was certainly not taking the project forward.
  • After five years of continued success, the group went down in flames after issues arose between the members.
  • The ongoing peace dialogues are certainly going down in flames after the terrorist attack that happened last week.

The phrase “down in flames” can also be used in texts to indicate “rejection”, “disapproval”, or “hurling an insult”. For example:

  • Looking at his geeky outfits, nerdy glasses, and antiquated hairstyle, she just had to give her a scorning look to shot him down in flames. There was no need for her to speak – not even a single word.

The term can also be employed in sentences to refuse someone’s suggestion without considering it. For example:

  • Before he could make his presentation on the new business idea, she shot him down in flames.
  • She sensed his divisive thought and shot him down in flames before he could even open his mouth.

In the above sentence, the phrase “shot down in flames” is used in the place of “ignore”, “turn down”, or “dismiss”.

Example Sentences with the Phrase “Go Down in Flames”

The following is a list of sentences incorporating the phrase “go down in flames” in its different inflections or forms:

  • The project will go down in flames if the reports about its role in financing illegal activities come to light.
  • The plan looks great, but it will go down in flames if even one of the stakeholders does not participate. Execution is the biggest challenge.
  • She is a great athlete, no doubt. But her career and reputation will go down in flames if she administers any of these banned substances, especially right before the games when the testing protocols are active and stringent.
  • My dad’s aircraft went down in flames in the war. He, however, somehow managed to escape the incident alive and mostly unscathed. Most importantly, he was honored by the state for his valor.
  • The king’s regime went down in flames a few days after the military attack. He will most likely be kept in house arrest until normalcy returns.

man falls on fire vector art


To conclude, “go down in flames” has a pretty straightforward meaning and can be incorporated into texts quite seamlessly. The phrase can also be modified to make it fit better in texts. Things, however, get a bit tricky when “down” is replaced with “up”, or “flames” is substituted with “smoke”.

If you are considering rephrasing the term in your texts to exhibit the phrase’s versatility or malleability, make sure you do so when the sentence or context is right. Else, you risk sabotaging the text or changing the sentence’s construct/meaning altogether.

Shawn Manaher

Shawn Manaher is the founder and CEO of The Content Authority. He's one part content manager, one part writing ninja organizer, and two parts leader of top content creators. You don't even want to know what he calls pancakes.

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