The Grammarphobia Blog

Andirons and firedogs

Q: I have a question about the things that logs rest on in a fireplace. I’ve always called them “andirons,” but I’ve often heard them referred to as “firedogs.” And Mark Twain calls them “dog-irons” in Huck Finn. What is the history of these words?

A: Firedogs and andirons are the same thing – metal supports used in pairs in a fireplace to hold burning logs.

“Andiron” (adopted from the Old French andier) has been in the English language since 1300, and was originally spelled aundyrne in English.

The presence of “iron” in later versions of the word was the result of a misunderstanding. In the early days, people confused the ending of aundyrne with two Middle English spellings of “iron” – yre and yren.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says, the ending of the word was identified in people’s minds with the old words yre, yren, and eventually “iron.” Where the Old French came from we don’t know.

The word “dog,” meanwhile, has been used since the mid-1400s for a variety of mechanical devices or tools for grabbing or holding: clamps, levers, nails, screws, pincers, grappling irons, and so on.

The OED has citations from 1458 for “doggs of Iryn,” and from 1552 for “Dogge of yron,” to describe such implements.

It was perhaps inevitable that an andiron would eventually be referred to as a “dog,” and this first came about (as far as we know) in the late 16th century.

As one of its definitions of “dog,” the OED has this: “One of a pair of iron or brass utensils placed one on each side of a fireplace to support burning wood; = andiron; (more fully called fire-dogs).”

The first quotation in the OED refers to “One paire of dogges in the Chymly” (1596). These were variously called “firedogs,” “dog irons,” “iron dogs” or just “dogs.”

Similarly, a “dog-grate” (also called a “dog-stove”) was “a detached fire-grate standing in a fireplace upon supports called dogs,” according to the OED.

By the way, the name of the liberal blog FireDogLake doesn’t refer to firedogs, according to an article in Washingtonian magazine about the site’s founder, Jane Hamsher. The name comes from Hamsher’s favorite pastime: sitting by the fire with her dog and watching Lakers games.

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