Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're playing with fire…
Q: Hi AWC, I have a burning question this week.
A: Oh, really?
Q: Yeah. I was watching a war movie and a soldier yelled something out as he threw a grenade. Is it “fire in the hole” or “fire in the hold”. Perhaps even “fire in the hall”?
A: They’d all sound quite similar in the heat of battle.
Q: Exactly! But I’m assuming one IS correct.
A: Yes, the correct phrase is “fire in the hole” – although you’re not alone as many people often confuse it for “hold” especially.
Q: Any reason why?
A: It’s probably related to the incorrect origin story of being a phrase that was used first on wooden sailing ships, as they fired cannons. Seeing as things like boats and planes have “holds” for storing cargo etc, it perhaps was misheard and attributed as such.
Q: I guess a lot of wooden sailing ships probably DID burn back in the day, especially if hit by a cannon.
A: Well that’s true. And to shout “there’s a fire in the hold” in that case would be just fine.
Q: Or even “fire in the HULL”!
A: True. But in terms of the actual warning phrase, it has its beginnings on dry ground.
Q: Oh okay.
A: Or more specifically, BELOW ground.
Q: Ahhhh, a HOLE in the ground perhaps?
A: Well not just any hole – but the one you get coal out of. It is thought that the phrase was first used in the early 20th century by American miners – called out as a warning before explosives were detonated.
Q: Well that makes sense. And far better than “looky looky blasty blasty!”
A: Indeed. It was actually written as part of mining regulations with language such as “The shot firer must give a loud, verbal warning such as ‘fire in the hole’ at least three times before blasting.”
Q: Poor miners – having to deal with such conditions and not be able to be served in a bar at the end of a long day’s work.
A: Ummm, no, you’re thinking about minors – with an “O” – for someone underage. Not related.
Q: Ooooh, that explains why I was so confused the year I played in a minor-league baseball team.
A: Well, in the case of “fire in the hole”, it eventually made its way out of the mines – with the military later adopting this same phrase for similar explosive warnings, in particular relating to grenades or bomb squads.
Q: Hence the war movie reference!
A: Exactly. It became a way of saying “watch out!” in a number of scenarios where an explosion in a confined space was imminent. Although you’d usually only hear it shouted once in a movie scenario.
Q: Anything blasty in a confined space – got it.
A: In fact, speaking of space – it was later used in the name of a training procedure by NASA for their moon landings – a “fire in the hole test” allowed them to practise an aborted surface landing.
Q: Houston, we have a fire in the hole
A: Exactly. And even beyond real explosives, many people simply use the phrase humorously as a general warning these days, especially if throwing something.
Q: And it definitely has nothing to do with fiery stars imploding into black holes?
A: Haha no. But I’m sure if you were about to witness such a phenomenon, you might feel compelled to turn to your friends and yell “fire in the hole”.
Q: Nah, there would be no point. I’ve tried to explain the importance of black holes to them, but it’s no use.
A: Why not?
Q: They just don’t understand the gravity of the situation… Hahahaaa
A: Please leave.
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