Thursday, December 13, 2018

Language of Confusion: Fire

Honestly, I might be doing this one because I’m cold. So very cold.

I actually did fire already, but it was one of the first etymology posts I ever did and focused more on the difference between fire and fiery and why they’re stupidly spelled so different. I already explained the spelling thing in my other post, but here’s a refresher: it wasn’t spelled fire until the thirteenth century at the earliest, and before that it was spelled fier. For some reason the spelling changed for that, but not for the adjective version of the word, because words are weird.

Fire comes from the Old English fyr, which was pronounced the same way anyway. Before that it was the Proto Germanic fur and Proto Indo European perjos, from the root paewr, which also means fire, as well as egni-, another word for fire. Yes, they had two. One was for “inanimate” fire, one was for “animate” fire. I’m not really sure how you distinguish them, but that’s why we have the words fire, pyro, and ignite.

Pyro-, as well as related words pyre, pyrite, and others, is from the Greek pyr, fire, which is from paewr-. Ignite showed up in the seventeenth century (ignition showed up a little earlier) from the classical Latin ignitus, the past participle of ignire, to ignite.

But there are other words to look at. Flame has a completely separate origin, coming from the Middle English flaume (noun) and flaumen (verb). The words are from the Anglo French flaume/flaumbe or flaumer/flamber, hence the word flambé, and come from the classical Latin flammula, little flame, from the Proto Indo European bhel-, shine, flash or burn, and origin of words like black and bleach and just so many others. Such as blaze, which comes from the Old English blaese, a flame or blast, from the Proto Germanic blas, which was taken from bhel- also.

Tl;dr: we have a lot of words for fire.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. I'd think if a fire was inanimate, it wouldn't be a fire...

  2. Animate fires are clearly ones that speak to you, like that whole burning bush thing.

  3. Back in the day when they were inventing words, Grogg turned to Ugg and said, 'the yellow glowy thing hurts! What should we name it?'

  4. Well, fire was an important concept to earlier peoples. Kind of like other heating systems are to us at this time of year.


Please validate me.