Of all the elements and here I'm talking about air, water, earth and fire, the last one is probably the most feared especially when we think about the recent forest fires over the last few months in different parts of the world. Not surprisingly it pops up in several expressions in English illustrating its strength and danger as well as words associated with fire.
«Playing with fire» means doing something that will have dangerous consequences like for example standing in the middle of a forest and teasing a wild bear. Going from one bad situation into another one that is just as bad can be described as «jumping out of the frying pan into the fire». And when someone comes along when you've just left the frying pan and are sitting in the fire and tries to help you but only makes things ten times worse, they are said to be «adding fuel to the fire». But sometimes this frightening element can also take on a more light-hearted appearance. When you are describing someone who is competent but will never do anything really amazing or dynamic, you could say «they will never set the Thames on fire».
Again if two people are seen to be getting on very well with each other, they could be described as «getting on like a house on fire». Don't ask me where that expression comes from but I can assure you that it is a very common one. But then in case I'm «under fire» (under attack) for being lazy I can only suppose that the two people are getting on very well so quickly in the same way that a house burns very quickly.
Fire has a particular significance from a historical point of view at this time of year in Britain. To be more precise it's the time for bonfires and fireworks. The date is contained in this little saying: «Please to remember the fifth of November/ gunpowder, treason and plot./ We know no reason why gunpowder treason/ Should ever be forgot».
I'm sure that it could well be «the burning question» — a matter of great interest to many to know what I'm on about and as I have no wish to make you «burn the midnight oil» — spend hours studying till late to find the answer — I will explain.
There was a certain Guy Fawkes whose dates were 1570 to 1606 — in other words he lived at roughly the same time as William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Whereas Shakespeare was too anxious to keep in with his two monarchs Elizabeth 1st and later James 1st and «keep the home fires burning» — have money to pay for his house and family — Fawkes had other ideas and was a member of a plot to blow up James 1st and both Houses of Parliament.
Unfortunately for Guy, who had a habit of «burning the candle at both ends» — working too many hours — was caught late at night preparing the gunpowder under the House on November 4th and in this way thoroughly «burnt his boats» - couldn't go back and change what he had done. Poor Guy he didn't even have an «old flame» — a former girl friend to help him — and he was later executed for treason. Ever since then it has been customary for families in their back gardens, villages on their greens and towns in public fields to build a big bonfire and burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes and let off fireworks on the day planned for the assassination attempt — November 5th.
The trouble is that in the same way that advertising for Christmas seems to begin in August so too fireworks are often on sale soon after the summer holidays. In fact even as I write I can hear my neighbours (I imagine the younger ones) «fired with enthusiasm» — greatly encouraged — are letting them off right now although it's a least two weeks to go to the proper night. But then I don't want to go on about it too much in case I get «shot down in flames» — heavily criticised.
You can buy fireworks almost anywhere often in small shops which like to «have several irons in the fire» (several business interests) but sometimes they find they can't take on all these projects and some of them «get their fingers burnt» and end up losing money. There are many types of firework — the ones that turn round in circles like a Catherine wheel, the big ones that fly off like rockets, the ones you hold in your hand called «sparklers» (incidentally a slang word for eyes) down to the humblest of them all called a «squib» that merely fizzes and then explodes very gently — another word also for a short satirical speech. Mind you when a squib gets wet, it doesn't work and we say that the speech went off like a «damp squib».
If you have any questions or comments regarding this essay, please post your answers on the forum here: Guy Fawkes Night?