Etymology Usage

Is “arson fire” a crime against English?

Q: I hear many newscasters refer to a fire that’s purposely set as an “arson fire.” Isn’t that what “arson” by itself means?

A: In other words, is “arson fire” redundant? Well, yes and no.

In our opinion, it’s redundant most of the time, but occasionally it’s not.

The noun “arson” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the act of wilfully and maliciously setting fire to another man’s house, ship, forest, or similar property; or to one’s own, when insured, with intent to defraud the insurers.”

Notice that “arson” is the crime—the act of setting a fire. It’s not the fire itself. For this reason, we think it’s sometimes legitimate to use “arson” as an adjective modifying “fire.”

“Arson fire” is not a redundancy along the lines of, say, “fatal slaying” or “major milestone.”

Every slaying is fatal, every milestone is major. But not every fire is arson, so it’s sometimes legitimate to modify “fire” with “arson.”

An insurer, for example, might say that a policy doesn’t cover “arson fire.” So it might cover other kinds of fires, but not those feloniously set.

And we see nothing wrong with a headline like “Man Dies in Arson Fire.” A simple “Man Dies in Fire” doesn’t tell you a crime was involved. And “Man Dies in Arson” isn’t correct—the fire killed him, not the crime.

But we agree that “arson fire” is often one word too many. In the following sentences, the words in brackets should be omitted:

“The [arson] fire was deliberately set” … “This is a case of arson [fire]” … “The inferno that destroyed the skyscraper was ruled [an] arson [fire].”

The noun “arson” came into English in the 1600s by way of Anglo-French. But its ultimate source is the Latin arsum, the past participle of ardere (to burn), the verb that also gave us “ardor” and “ardent.”

The first writer to use the word in English, according to OED citations, was Sir Matthew Hale, a Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in the 17th century.

Hale was author of a treatise on criminal law entitled Historia Placitorum Coronae (“The History of the Pleas of the Crown”). The word “arson” appears several times in the work, which has a chapter entitled “Of arson, or the wilful burning of houses.”

(The treatise was published around 1680, a few years  after the judge’s death in 1676.)

When used as an adjective, “arson” is what’s known as an attributive noun—that is, a noun used to modify another noun. We’ve often written about attributive nouns on the blog, including a posting last year.

For writers who are bothered by “arson fire,” there’s a possible (though rather clunky) alternative—“arsonous fire.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists “arsonous” as an adjectival form of “arson.” But “arsonous fire” isn’t often used.

“Arson fire” appears not only in news articles but in hundreds of books and other documents about fire safety management, insurance, and criminal law.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make it good English usage. You can’t beat legal writing for redundancy.

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