Q: You promised on WNYC that you’d get back to us about why we use the word “fire” to mean dismiss or sack someone. I haven’t seen anything on the blog yet. And, for that matter, why a “sack”?
A. Oops! My in-box has been overflowing and I didn’t have a chance to get to this until now.
The verb “fire” has several meanings in English: to ignite or set fire to; to kindle or inflame (as in passion); to discharge a firearm or start an engine; to become angry or inflamed; to bake pottery; to fuel a furnace; to set off a charge; to proceed energetically (“fire away”); to release a camera shutter.
But as we all know there’s another definition, described by the Oxford English Dictionary as “U.S. slang” meaning “to turn (any one) out of a place; to eject or expel forcibly; to dismiss or discharge peremptorily.”
The usage was first recorded in 1882, according to another reference, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. In its earliest appearances, the verb phrase was “fire out.”
The OED says some have suggested that this sense is derived from an obscure meaning of “fire” – to drive someone away by fire – but the dictionary adds that this theory “seems unlikely.”
Could the usage be a pun on “discharge” (as if from a gun)? At least one WNYC listener has suggested this explanation, and the theory is mentioned in both Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English and Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang.
In addition, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable suggests as much when it describes the slang expressions “fire” and “fire out” as meaning “to discharge from employment suddenly and unexpectedly.”
None of these sources give any evidence, though, and I think we have to say at this point that we don’t know for certain how “fire” came to mean “dismiss.”
As for the use of “sack” in the sense of “reject” or “dismiss,” Partridge says it was first recorded in English in 1840, but Brewer’s says “to get the sack” (or “to be sacked”) was current in France in the 17th century (on luy a donné son sac).
Supposedly, according to Brewer’s, workmen carried their tools with them from job to job in a sack or bag, and when a laborer was dismissed he took up his sack and left. Hence, he was “sacked” or “given the sack.”
But I’m skeptical about this explanation, since none of my other language references suggest it. And it wouldn’t account for other kinds of dismissals for which we use “sack” – to jilt a lover, for instance, or to expel a student from school.
Here’s another possibility. Maybe “sack” grew out of a similar usage of “bag” (this is just a supposition on my part).
In 16th-century England, to “give the bag” was to leave someone (an employer, for example) suddenly or without notice. But in more modern times, the OED says, the phrase has meant “to dismiss (a servant, etc.),” and “to get the bag” has meant “to be dismissed.”
Published citations for the expression in the sense of leaving one’s employer date back to 1592 (“To giue your masters the bagge”). In the late 1700s, according to Random House, the same phrases also meant to jilt a lover or be jilted.
As a variation on the theme, the rejected one was “given the bag to hold,” a usage that goes back to 1760, according to Random House.
Here’s George Washington: “He will leave you the bag to hold” (1791). And Thomas Jefferson: “She will leave Spain the bag to hold” (1793).
And here’s a humorous citation from Sir Walter Scott’s 1822 novel Peveril of the Peak: “What! when I thought I had the prettiest girl in the Castle dancing after my whistle, to find that she gave me the bag to hold, and was snuggling in a corner with a rich old Puritan!”
This usage, as you’ve probably guessed, gave rise to the familiar expression “left holding the bag.”