Q: I’ve read online that the Native American firekeeper inspired the use of “visiting fireman” for an out-of-town VIP whose presence demands an extra effort in the hospitality department. As a Native American, I’m aware that firekeepers existed in some cultures (think Cherokees), but I doubt that they traveled much. Can you confirm the Native American origin?
A: No, we haven’t found any evidence that “visiting fireman” is derived from the Native Americans who tended sacred fires. Although a few language sources make that claim, we think the expression probably evolved from the literal use of the phrase for a firefighter on an out-of-town visit.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “visiting fireman” as American slang for “a person given especially cordial treatment while visiting an organization or place” or “a tourist expected to spend freely.”
The OED begins its entry with a bracketed literal example, which may suggest that the dictionary’s editors believe, as we do, that the literal usage inspired the figurative one:
“A company of firemen from Rochester, N.Y., … continue to receive the attentions of their brother firemen of Baltimore. … This evening the visiting firemen will be the guests of the Washington Hose Company” (from the Oct. 25, 1855, Baltimore Sun).
We’ve seen many similar literal examples from the second half of the 19th century in searches of newspaper databases.
The next Oxford citation, which isn’t enclosed in brackets, also uses the term literally, though in a looser way. This is an expanded version from Mantrap, a 1926 novel by Sinclair Lewis:
“Oh, I guess I’m an awful fly-paper. It looks like I just couldn’t keep my hooks off any he-male that blows into town with the visiting firemen!” The reference is to a Canadian air force pilot (the “he-male”) and two forest-fire rangers.
The third example in the OED, from Choose a Bright Morning (1936), a satirical novel by Hillel Bernstein, uses the expression for visiting VIPs who get to meet with a fascist dictator:
“He never sees people who might have legitimate business with him, such as correspondents who are stationed here. But he receives all the visiting firemen.”
As you’ve noticed, some language writers trace the expression “visiting fireman” to the role of the Native American firekeeper.
In The Dictionary of American Slang (4th ed.), for example, Barbara Ann Kipfer and Robert L. Chapman say the usage comes from “a Native American ceremonial dignitary who was responsible for lighting the fires.” However, the authors offer no evidence.
Why, you may wonder, does the expression refer to a visiting fireman, rather than a visiting accountant, chemist, or piano tuner?
Probably because firefighters have a tradition of visiting their counterparts in other cities, especially to attend the funerals of those who have died in the line of duty. And traditionally, they’re given red-carpet treatment.
In Firefighters: Their Lives in Their Own Words (1988), Dennis Smith describes a trip by 20 New York City firefighters to Boston to attend the funeral of nine firefighters killed in a 1972 fire at the Hotel Vandome.
The author, one of the 20 firefighters from Engine Company 82 and Ladder Company 31 in the Bronx, said the trip showed “what it was like when a city decided it was going to make itself host to the visiting firemen.”
“Boston and its citizens opened themselves up, the hotels held free rooms for the visiting firefighters, and the firehouses, of course, welcomed their visitors,” Smith writes. “The city donated its buses for transport duty, and the bus drivers volunteered their time and their days off to drive them.”
Interestingly, Smith generally uses the unisex “firefighters” when writing about people who fight fires, but “firemen” slips in when he writes about them as visitors who get special treatment.