Fire in the hole.

Keep back 200 feet.

Dear Word Detective:  I’ve been trying to find the definitive origin of the expression “fire in the hole,” but only can find hypotheses, not a substantiated origin.  Can you help? — Barbara Garrett.

Let’s make a deal.  I’ll tell you where the phrase comes from if you solemnly promise never to use it yourself.  Same goes for anyone reading this column.  Stop reading right now unless you agree.  You in the Star Trek pajamas with the Doritos, was that a yes?  OK, we’re on.

Sorry to be cranky, but there are some popular language fads that really boil my bunny, and the apparent rage for shouting “Fire in the hole!” at every opportunity is at the top of my list right now.  It seems to be on the tip of the tongue of every aging frat boy, the type who ten years ago was still punctuating every third sentence with “Not!”  There’s even a genre of “Fire in the Hole” YouTube videos that showcase twerps shouting the phrase as they throw soft drinks at hapless fast-food clerks at drive-through windows.  It’s the title of a Steely Dan song, for Pete’s sake.  So don’t be lame.  Just say no.

As commonly used as a catchphrase today, “fire in the hole” means “watch out,” “stand back,” or “something exciting and/or important is about to happen.”  It’s become an all-purpose synonym of “heads up!”

But the origins of “fire in the hole” lie deep in the history of perhaps the most dangerous civilian occupation on earth, underground coal mining.  For much of its history in the US, such mining has depended on the use of black powder or dynamite to loosen the rock.  When the charges had been placed, just before detonation, the cry “Fire in the hole!” was a warning to miners to clear the area and prepare for the explosion.  Far from being an antiquated custom, the phrase is still legally required to be shouted in many states (Illinois mining regulations specify “The shot firer must give a loud, verbal warning such as ‘fire in the hole’ at least three (3) times before blasting”).  “Fire in the hole,” like coal mining itself, is deadly serious business, which is why the current frivolous use of the phrase ticks me off.

“Fire in the hole” dates back at least to the early 20th century, and was adopted in the 1940s by military bomb disposal teams, as well as by soldiers tossing grenades into enclosed spaces (such as tunnels) where “blow-back” might be expected.  Interestingly, moonshiners in  Appalachia in the 1920s (many of whom were from mining communities) also shouted the phrase to warn of the approach of “revenuers” (government agents), occasionally detonating sticks of dynamite for emphasis.

10 comments on this post.
  1. Massage Marketing:

    I think the phrase is originated during Industrialisation period by Miners and big construction (like dams) workers when an explosion was imminent for destroying rocks using gunpowder/bombs!!

  2. Dan Lindsly:

    I think it (fire in the hole) is actually “fire in the hold” as on a ship. In the days of wooden ships that was indeed a problem and was shouted as a warning that was possible life threatening. It has somehow become fire in the hole.

  3. Lorraine Kawecki:

    I understood, more specifically, that “fire in the hole” meant sparks in the hold where the gunpowder was stored on the warships…indeed a dangerous situation. At least, that’s what I understand from the Horatio Hornblower novels.

  4. Ray Albrektson:

    Gunpowder in warships has never been stored in the hold, but the magazine, and that includes Hornblower’s navy. The “hold” theory is pure wishful thinking.

  5. Ian Clark:

    I come from a very old line of English sailors and the expression comes from when the touch paper was put to the fire hole in a ships cannon. The hole in the Cannon ( not the hole where the shot comes out but the firing hole)was filled with gun powder and it took a few seconds before the main charge went off. As a warning to the rest of the gun crew the firing master would shout “fire in the hole” . The old cannons had a feirce riccochet and it was a warning for everyone to get away from the cannon.

  6. Edna Cahill:

    Fire in the hole for cannon fire is the explanation I was given. I think some of the confusion arises from the shanty ‘Fire down below’, which names all the areas of the ship in turn where fire might occur, and includes fire in the hold (hole)

  7. Jeeves:

    recoil…

  8. Abe Pilkington:

    I realize it’s years later now (after these posts), but prior to reading this the canon idea was the best one i could think of for an origin. Because there was the aforementioned “Hole” in which the fire was placed to set off the canon as well as the need for a warning due to the delay. I also don’t buy the “fire down below” theory, it just doesn’t make sense logically. As a sailor it’s just far too vague a statement to be of any use to the crew, on a ship a fire anywhere is a main priority and detail is needed and not time consuming enough to necessitate shortening. It’s just as quick and easy to shout “fire in the galley”, or “fire in the crew quarters” as it is to shout “fire down below” which as was already mentioned means anything below the deck. The fact that canons on vessels are far older than American mining i have to believe this is the true origin of this phrase, but i’m neither a historian nor a student of English, so i obviously can’t say for certain. But i’d really like to know for sure.

  9. Kiran CJ:

    I too go with the cannon theory.

  10. Roger:

    In a mine, the charge is set off by a fuse that generally runs to the detonator, generally, farthermost back from the face, or, at the bottom of the hole. Note that the fuse burns past the charge loaded in the hole, to get to the detonator or blasting cap. Now visualize a lit fuse, with the fire traveling toward the face. The blast can still be stopped by cutting the fuse. Once the fire goes into the hole, the blast cannot be stopped, even though perhaps 10′ of fuse in the hole remains to be burned before the charge goes off, and it might take several minutes to do so. If you are in the vicinity, run away as fast as your little legs will allow, and you may be alright.

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