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 have some quick fire questions…
Q: Can we talk about the Australian bushfires?
A: We can, but that might be more of a climate discussion than grammar.
Q: With all the writing about it lately, there was one word I wanted to clarify.
Q: I see that donation boxes say to give to the hardworking “Fireys” – but then to describe a blaze, it’s not “firey” but instead “fiery”… why?
A: Ah, good question. Let’s deal with the noun first. In Australia, our love of shortening names has led to “firefighters” being known as “fireys” much like we’d refer to “ambos” for ambulance paramedics.
Q: But why wouldn’t something full of fire be described as “firey” also?
A: Because English.
Q: Oh, that excuse again??
A: Sadly, it’s true. The word “fire” was experimented with a lot during the Middle Ages – originally it had the spelling of “fyr” as well as a bunch of others, including “fier”.
Q: And that’s how we got “fiery”?
A: Exactly. Looking at how languages evolve can be a lot like discovering fossils. In this case, the spelling was preserved during the time that “fier” was dominating, approximately 1400AD.
Q: And then the mosquito DNA was extracted from the fossil to create dinosaurs?
A: No, that’s the plot of Jurassic Park.
Q: Oh, yes of course. My bad.
A: As you can imagine, the concept of fire was rather important to human civilisation, so the spelling probably got more attention than other words.
Q: As Joan of Arc said, there was a lot at stake…
Q: What were some of the other adjectives?
A: As well as “fiery”, there was also “fyrbaere”, “fyren”, “fyrenful” and “fyrhat” to describe similar things. Scholars of the time were keen on adding “y” as a vowel during this time, but it didn’t catch on or set the world on fyr.
Q: Haha. Hmmm, maybe why the Fyre Festival was unsuccessful?
A: Um, no that was purely from fraud.
Q: Right. So all those “fyr” alternative adjectives, ahem, burnt out?
A: Yep. And by the time the 1600s rolled around, the spelling of “fire” had finally solidified, however the adjective “fiery” remained in its ‘fossilised’ form.
Q: I’ve also heard someone say that the spelling of “fiery” preserves the two syllables of “fire” in a way that “firey” wouldn’t. Is that true?
A: It’s true that it does, but unlikely that it had anything to do with the spelling if you look at the scattergun approach they seemed to take.
Q: Speaking of scatterguns, to “fire” something – as in a verb… is that newer?
A: The verb “fire” meaning to discharge a firearm is from the 1520s and to fire pottery is from the 1660s.
Q: And to be fired from a job?
A: Curiously, that wasn’t first used until Donald Trump uttered “you’re fired” on his TV show The Apprentice in 2004.
A: Of course not. It’s been around in that sense since 1877.
Q: So to recap, if you’re describing something hot and burny, it’s always “fiery”, without exception?
A: That’s right. If we were lying, we’d have very fiery pants indeed.
Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!