Don’t you hate it when plans backfire?

Ever stop to wonder how long they’ve been doing it–with that exact word, anyway? No? Well, pause to wonder. 😉

One of the first meanings of backfire to find its way into English was a literal fire–one lit on a prairie to stop the advance of a wildfire and deprive it of fuel. This backfire joined the language in 1839, as a noun, with the verb of this meaning following in the 1880s.

But that’s certainly not what we mean by it in casual conversation today, right?

The next familiar meaning is fro 1897, that of “premature ignition of an internal combustion engine.” So the car that backfires. Sure.

What I find interesting is that the figurative meaning of “to affect the initiator rather than the intended object,” from 1912, is the newest meaning…from the oldest one. This of course alludes to the back-firing of a fire arm, when there’s an explosion from the breech of a gun–which dates from 1775-1780 in America. Backfire is, then, it seems, a word from the American Revolution. Who knew? (And okay, so I’m extrapolating that from the dates, but it seems logical, LOL.)

(The photo above is a normally operating flintlock rifle, not a backfiring one. Just FYI)

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