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shameless pleading

Fired / Let go

Picture a cross between Fred Flintstone and Tony Soprano, minus the charm.

Dear Word Detective: When people lose their jobs, why do we say they are “fired”? Why do we say “let go”? Were workers tied together, then the rope cut? Or worse, was the rope set on fire? — Hardycat.

The short answer is “no,” although with a little work that rope thing might make an interesting metaphor for the current economic climate. It also reminds me of a supervisor I once had. He used to call everyone into a conference room about once a month and literally scream abuse at us for a full hour. No one was allowed to say anything, go to the bathroom, or breathe. Dude was nuts. And he didn’t actually seem to know anybody’s name or job title, so none of the screaming even made sense. It later turned out that the guy had a desk full of Peruvian marching powder and a drinking problem. Hoodathunkit, right?

Breaking up is hard to do, especially when the rupture is between you and the job that pays for the roof over your head. But people have been getting canned since they started getting hired, so we’ve had plenty of time to develop a large number of words and phrases to describe that moment when the Big Enchilada tells you to clean out your desk. The simplest and least-tactful term in common usage today is probably “fired,” which manages to convey both gut-churning finality and a severance package of undisguised hostility. Being “fired” isn’t being told that your cushy gig will, regretfully, end a week from Friday; being “fired” is when two beefy security guards frog-march you to the door. And one of them has a Taser.

“Fire” first appeared in this sense (developed from a broader sense of “to eject or expel forcefully”) in the 1880s, and was commonly used at first with “out” (“If .? the practice is persisted in, then they [pupils] should be fired out,” 1885). Behind this sense of “to fire” is the metaphor of “firing” a projectile from a gun or cannon, not setting the unwanted employee alight. But the “cannon” kind of “firing” did originally refer to setting gunpowder on fire, and the explosive imagery inherent in the term accounts for its use for the “get out and don’t come back” species of job separation.

“Let go” is a much gentler euphemistic term for “to dismiss from employment” dating back to 1871 (“If he decides to let you go,?you must abide by your bargain, and go honourably to look for labour elsewhere”). “Let go” in this sense is an extension of the phrase “let go,” first appearing in the 14th century, meaning “to allow to escape; to set at liberty.” Of course, involuntarily losing one’s job is hardly an “escape,” and few of the unemployed would confuse their condition with “liberty,” but, as euphemisms go, it’s not bad.

It’s certainly not as creepy as the British invention “made [or rendered] redundant,” dating back to the early 20th century. Theoretically, workers become “redundant” (in the basic sense of “unnecessary”) when a business is reorganized and their jobs cease to exist. But I can’t help seeing the word and thinking of the common use of “redundant” to mean “unnecessarily duplicative.” Yes, you’ve lost your job, but the clone we made of you still has his because we can pay him in bottle caps.

OK, that’s not very funny now, but give it time. In a few years it won’t be funny at all.

3 comments to Fired / Let go

  • Hughe

    Being a Human Resources manager, its nice to know the origin of words I regrettably have to use from time to time. Has me wondering what the origin is of other terms for “you’re not employed with us anymore”. You used 2 in the column – canned and dismiss. In record keeping of dismissals, I used the term terminated, which has a note of finality to it. Fired and let go have 19th century origins. Are these words and others like them examples of language that developed out of the industrial revolution when more of us became employees of companies?

  • N Stephenson

    Hi Love the website!
    On the definition of the word ‘Fire’ , as in to make someone unemployed, sack them from their job etc.
    I’ve recently heard a definition that both explains the words ‘Sack’ and to ‘Fire’ someone, though I appreciate this may not be possible to trace the written words back via books such as The OED, but the story does seem to make a little sense.
    I was told by an elderly Scotsman that both hose terms came about through the employment of Stone masons.
    If a particular mason had done something really bad (either to his colleagues or , more likely, to the stone he was working on) then, sometimes the employers would burn his tools. This meant that not only could he continue his job there, but, they considered him SO bad that they had decided that they didn’t want to him to work elsewhere..hence the burning of the tools.
    If, however, they thought, for one reason or another, that maybe he wasn’t TOO bad a worker, or that really they had no choice but to ‘let him go’, then they would ask him to depart, but, place his tools in a sackcloth so that he could still continue working elsewhere..just not there.
    It’s hearsay, definitely, but one I’ve come across in England and Scotland a few times over the years and seems like a widely popular belief in the etymology of those words.
    Do you think it’s plausible at all?

  • [...] We were surprised to learn that to be let go, or fired, is not an anachronism. This euphemism dates back to 1817, says the Word Detective. [...]

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