91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

If only we could all get along like a house on fire

It's almost Valentine's Day, and we here at That's What They Say encourage you to think about the ones you love. Ideally with a Lionel Richie album playing in the background.

As you prepare to indulge your significant other or maybe your best friend with cards, candy and flowers, think back to when you first met.

If you hit it off right away, some might say the two of you were "like a house on fire."

Obviously, a burning house generally isn't a good thing. But a relationship like a house on fire means you got along as fast as a house burns, especially one with a thatched roof.

As far as we can tell, this idiom dates back to the early 19th century. Though it's most often used to describe relationships that are immediately successful, it can also be used to describe doing anything really fast. 

This got us wondering about other instances where we use "fire" as a verb.

For example, when someone is permanently dismissed from their job, why do we say they were fired?

In its earliest instances, the verb "to fire" literally means to set something on fire. You could also use it to talk about using fire to drive out a person or animal

So how did "to fire" make the leap from actual flames to pink-slipping someone?

The key is found when firearms come along and firing a weapon becomes a thing. That's where we get metaphors like "fire a question" or "fire a look" at someone. 

By the late 19th century, "to fire" comes to mean to eject or expel someone or something. In the workplace, a person who's been fired has been ejected from the office, the same way a bullet is ejected or fired from a gun. 

Can you think of other words with distinct literal and figurative meanings? Let us know at rkruth@umich.edu or acurzan@umich.edu.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Related Content