The Grammarphobia Blog

Did Muggsy’s scheme backfire?

Q: Not exactly a grammar question, but I’m curious about the verb “backfire.” I’m guessing that one of its meanings – an action that unexpectedly turns out negative – didn’t exist before cars were invented. (I’m presuming “backfire” originated with the invention of the automobile tailpipe.)

A: The verb “backfire” has two literal meanings, according to the Oxford English Dictionary:

(1) “To light a fire ahead of an advancing prairie-fire in order to deprive it of fuel.”

(2) “To ignite or explode prematurely,” a mishap that can occur with an internal-combustion engine or a firearm.

The first citation for the verb in the OED, from a Londoner’s 1886 memoir of a visit to Kansas, uses “backfire” in the fire-fighting sense:

“We all … set to work to ‘back fire’ from the stables, and were only just in time to save the whole place from destruction, by burning a sufficiently wide piece of grass off, and thus stopping the rush of fire.”

The earliest published reference in the OED for the second sense is from a 1902 story by Kipling: “That car … back-fired superbly.”

The first citation for this usage in reference to a weapon is in The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s 1938 novel: “Penny pulled the trigger. The explosion that followed had a sizzling sound, and Penny fell backward. The gun had back-fired.”

The figurative meaning you’re interested in did indeed come from the second sense of the word, the premature firing of an internal-combustion engine.

This sense first appeared in print in Pitching in a Pinch: Or, Baseball From the Inside, a 1912 memoir by the great Giants and Reds pitcher Christy Mathewson: “One of McGraw’s schemes back-fired on him.”

The schemer, of course, was John “Muggsy” McGraw, who managed the Orioles and Giants.

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