Fire in the hole – meaning and origin

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

Everyone who has ever played a first person shooter in English will know the expression “fire in the hole”, used by your fellow fighters when a grenade is being thrown. It is used nowadays in all branches of life to warn others that something is about to explode, and sometimes misused to mean just “watch out” or “look at that” by people trying to sound interesting.

However, how did it come into existence? The literal meaning is sort of silly; why should a grenade throw be referred to as “fire in the hole”? Nevertheless, it is the literal meaning that reveals its origin.

One possible explanation is that it was originally used by miners. When a charge was set, i.e. when explosives were put in a hole and about to explode, they shouted “fire in the hole” to warn everyone that there will be… fire in the hole.

Another possible explanation, perhaps even more plausible from the linguistic viewpoint, is that it was used by soldiers firing a cannon. Early cannons had a little hole in them, packed with gunpowder. They were shot by lighting up the gunpowder which then burnt in the hole until it reached the main powder charge. Hence “fire in the hole” meant literally that there was “fire in the hole”, thus giving the others time to prepare for an explosion.

Unfortunately, there seems to be little to no historical evidence as to which one of the two is the true origin of the phrase. Some people claim that the phrase is in fact mispronunciation of “fire in the hold”, where hold means a space in a ship where cargo (and possibly gunpowder) might be stored, but this explanation is generally regarded as unlikely.

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.

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