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Feeling Burned Out? Maybe Someone Just Needs to Light a Fire Under You

A discussion of fire-related terms with Grant Barrett, a lexicographer and public radio host who recently had a close call with a blaze.

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: The Olympic flame may be out in Vancouver, but we're just getting fired up over terms related to fire.

RS: We lit on the idea after our friend and fellow master of words Grant Barrett had a scary experience.

Grant Barrett
Grant Barrett

GRANT BARRETT: "Two weeks ago, around three a.m., all the fire alarms in my home that I share with my wife and my son, they began to go off. Very loud, very annoying. And we rushed out of the building in our pajamas out into the cold night and stood there on the street and watched our building burn. Fortunately everyone in the building made it out OK. But the family in the apartment beneath ours, their apartment is now black and charred and they lost many of their belongings."

AA: "The family below you was 'burned out,' which means ... "

GRANT BARRETT: "That's right, they were burned out, which means the fire was so severe that they were unable to return to their apartment."

RS: "And some people might have felt 'burned up.'"

GRANT BARRETT: "Right, because it turned out to be an electrical fault, something wrong with the wiring that caused the fire. So if we felt that the electrician who put the electric sockets there did a poor job, we'd be burned up, meaning we'd be irritated or angry at their poor work."

RS: "When something is burned up, it also means it's literally burned up."

AA: "It's destroyed."

RS: "It's destroyed."

GRANT BARRETT: "And it's interesting, because we have both 'burned up' and 'burned down.' And burned down tends to be used for bigger objects like houses and buildings and automobiles, and burned up tends to be for smaller things like pieces of paper or leaves or something that basically once it's caught on fire, all that's left is a little bit of ash and some gas."

AA: "And getting back to the analogy of -- if the electrical work had been shoddy, poorly done or something, you would feel 'burned' by the company that did it. That's a common -- "

GRANT BARRETT: " We would indeed. By saying that we feel burned, we would feel ripped off or cheated, or if somebody had scammed us."

AA: "Now burned out also -- it can mean getting burned out of an apartment, out of your home, but if a worker is burned out, what does that means?"

GRANT BARRETT: "To really just have had enough. That is, it's hard to muster up the strength to continue to do this thing. You'll find that students who study a lot sometimes are burned out. And so they need a break or a vacation and then they can come back to it fresh."

RS: "Let's turn to fire now. If you're 'fired up,' what does that mean?"

GRANT BARRETT: "This goes back to the days when many of our machines were powered by steam. And so you'd throw coal or wood into a fire which heats the boiler that's filled with water. The water turns to steam and in that way the steam drives the machinery.

"So if you fired up a boiler, that means that you're making it go a lot hotter and a lot faster. And by analogy we can say figuratively or metaphorically that a person is fired up if they're highly motivated. That is, they have a lot of energy and they really want to do something and they'll do whatever it takes to make it happen."

RS: "Considering fire as a verb, if someone is 'fired,' that means they lose their job."

GRANT BARRETT: "This comes from guns and firearms. When you shoot a gun, you're also said to have discharged the gun. And discharge has another meaning, which means to let someone go from their job. That is, lay them off, fire them, whatever the term is for it. And so because of discharge already having two meanings, people then made the extension to fire also having the second meaning. So if you are fired, you are discharged."

RS: "Why don't we -- "

AA: "Wait, there's one more! When you're 'on fire.' I mean I heard this Olympian described on television, they said 'Ooh, he's on fire!'"

GRANT BARRETT: "It's by extension to the idea that something that makes you really move fast, it's fire or being on fire. Nobody wants to get burned. Some people said when the American hockey team beat the Finns, that they were on fire, because they beat them six to one. So it was a really good score and they had great success. That's another way of being on fire."

RS: "Another idiomatic expression: 'light a fire' under someone. That means to get them to do something, right?"

GRANT BARRETT: "And this goes back to the boiler I was talking about. Imagine a big metal container. It looks kind of like a bathtub and it's closed on top with a lot of pipes and valves and gauges and stuff. And so by extension we can say that a human also begins to work once you light a fire under them."

AA: And then there are people who will complain that they spend their day 'putting out fires.' And these are not firefighters, though."

GRANT BARRETT: "No, no, no. If you spend your days putting out fires, and you mean this in a metaphorical way, it means that you're got a lot of small problems that you have to deal with all together. And so you spend a lot of time just kind of solving problems one after the other, without a lot of chance to kind of catch your breath and think about the larger picture of what you're doing."

RS: Grant Barrett edits dictionaries and co-hosts the public radio program "A Way With Words."

AA: Well, enough playing with fire. We've burned through all our time for WORDMASTER this week. Our segments are online at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.