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.