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TWTS: Known liars better hope their pants never literally catch fire

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If your pants ever literally catch fire, you better hope whomever you call for help believes you. You have liars and their metaphorical pants fires to thank for any incredulity you may encounter.

We’d like to think the urgency, not to mention pain, in your voice would be enough to quell any disbelief, and the response from emergency personnel would be swift.

While our listener David Fresco isn’t concerned about any literal pants fires, he did write to us recently about a situation in which he fears he misused the metaphor incorrectly:

“I was having an email exchange with one of my admins, and she asked me, ‘How quickly do you need the task completed?’ I responded with the phrase, ‘it’s not pants on fire urgent.’”

The admin understood that “it’s not pants on fire urgent” meant the task didn’t need to be taken care of immediately, but Fresco later found himself questioning whether the context was appropriate.

“I am now realizing the phrase ‘pants on fire’ more commonly, if not only, means dishonesty as in ‘liar liar pants on fire,’ and I am unable to find any instances of it expressing urgency in terms of putting out the fire,” Fresco said.

We’ve got good news and good news. First, “pants on fire” can absolutely refer to urgency. Second, it was really fun to research this phrase.

At this point, “pants on fire” is generally used to refer to lying. When it comes to a sense of urgency or franticness, “hair on fire” is typically the phrase of choice, though “pants on fire” can be definitely be found in this context.

Linguist Barry Popik, who looks at the origin of phrases and slang, has traced the children’s rhyme “Liar, liar, pants on fire…” back to a 1922 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune. It showed up under the heading “Do you remember way back when?”:

We children used to shout:
"You liar! You liar! Your pants are afire.
Your tongue is as long as a telegraph wire.”

We don’t know for sure why the liar’s pants are on fire. Popik has found an English poem from 1841 that could be related: “Liar, liar, lick spit; Turn about the candlestick. What’s good for liar? Brimstone and fire.”

Of course, the poet could’ve just used “fire” because it rhymed with “liar.”

In the 1920s/30s there are instances of “pants on fire” referring to urgency. For example, this line from the 1928 Broadway comedy The Front Page: “He was running around here ten minutes ago with his pants on fire about going to New York.”

To hear more about “pants on fire," the phrase "pants on fire false," and “hair on fire,” listen to the audio above.

If you have a question about our ever-changing language, send it to language@michiganpublic.org.

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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.
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.