The Grammarphobia Blog

Barring fire, flood, or devious etymology

Q: I’m stumped. I recently used one of my dad’s expressions: ” barring fire, flood, or civil unrest.” A non-native asked me to explain and I said, “unless something bad happens.” But I want to know more. I’ve found plenty of versions online, but I can’t find anything to indicate the phrase’s origin. Any clues?

A: I’ve spent way too much time on this already, and I still can’t give you a definitive answer. I have a couple of guesses, though, and a few facts to share.

As you’ve already learned, a bit of googling will come up with thousands of variations on the theme, from “barring fire, flood, or acts of God” to “barring flood, fire, or alien abduction.”

Other unfortunate events commonly mentioned include earthquake, nuclear strike, pestilence, and tornado. With stuff like that, why bother to get out of bed in the morning?

Curiously, I couldn’t find a single example of these expressions in a search of published references in the Oxford English Dictionary, though the OED has various references to “barring accidents.”

(A 1797 Coleridge poem is called “Fire, Famine, Slaughter.” And an 1864 Tennyson poem refers to “flood, fire, earthquake, thunder.” But there’s no mention of any “barring” there.)

The earliest example I can find of the kind of phrase you mention appeared in an article in the Columbus (Georgia) Daily Enquirer on Sept. 28, 1892, describing a house that “is as sound as a dollar and is good for a hundred years to come, barring fire and cyclones.”

A financial article in the Boston Journal on Nov. 1, 1895, referred to “dividends of $15 a share, barring fire, flood, and strikes.” And an article in the Oregonian in Portland on March 31, 1910, mentioned the scheduled completion of a new theater “barring fire, strikes or unavoidable delay.”

Where did these phrases come from? I can only guess. Perhaps they were influenced by the Ten Plagues in the Old Testament, though the only biblical plagues that we commonly see in these expressions are pestilence and hail. I’ve never heard of any barring of frogs or locusts or boils.

Another possible inspiration might be the source for that old saying about the steadfastness of mail carriers: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these courageous couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

(No, that’s not the US Postal Service motto, though it’s on the Postal Service’s James A. Farley Building in Manhattan.)

The saying is derived from a nearly 2,500-year-old comment by the Greek historian Herodotus about Persian postal couriers: “These neither snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness of night prevents from accomplishing each one the task proposed to him, with the very utmost speed.” (The quote is from G.C. Macaulay’s translation of The History of Herodotus.)

Before I drop the subject, I’d like to mention one of my favorite “barring” expressions. It comes from an Oct. 4, 1921, article in the New York Times that mentioned the reaction of the baseball commissioner of the time, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to ticket speculation for the 1921 World Series between the Yankees and the Giants:

“The commissioner isn’t worrying, for one of his teams has got to win, barring only fire, famine, pestilence or some one of the like visitations which many people like to describe as coming from on high.”

Sorry I can’t be more definitive, but I hope this helps.

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