Metaphors of Fire!

The notions of lighting, burning and extinguishing fires are often used metaphorically in business, politics and everyday life.  In these cold days of December, I thought it would be appropriate to describe some metaphors that might warm up my readers.  Enjoy!

light a fire under someone

When one is cold, lighting a fire brings warmth and comfort. Metaphorically, when one is inactive, lighting a fire under someone means they are to become more active or quick in whatever they are doing.

Example: The nomination of Barack Obama as presidential candidate in 2008 lit a fire under Democratic supporters who carried him to victory in the November election.


Another way of saying light a fire is to ignite it.  In popular terms, one can also ignite a problem or a controversy.

Example:  In the early 1970s, the problems for President Nixon were ignited by the break in by his aides at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C.


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Fires are often started by a single spark from a match or a nearby fire.  Metaphorically, something which stimulates a person or activity to increase speed is called a spark.

Example:  In the 2008 presidential election, John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as vice-presidential candidate was the spark that ignited the Republican Party to try to win the election.


The word incense comes from Latin meaning to start on fire.  In popular terms, to be incensed means to be very angry.

Example:  During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was incensed when the generals in the army did not win battles and the war dragged on and on.


As with the word incense, the word fume is old word for fire.  To fume at someone or something means to be very angry.

Example:  Supporters of Sarah Palin fumed when comedians made fun of her on national television.


A fire burns with bright flames.  In modern slang, to flame someone means to insult them or say bad things about them, usually on the Internet or on television.

Example:  Radio announcers with a Democratic or Republican agenda sometimes flame the members of the opposite political party on their radio shows.

fan the flames

When a fire is dying, one may need to use a fan or piece of paper to get the fire to burn brightly again.  This process is called fanning the flames.  In popular terms, to fan the flames means to make some argument even more controversial.

Example:  After the 9/11 attacks in New York City, any rumor about Osama bin Laden fanned the flames of worries about another terrorist attack.

blaze a trail

Another word for burn is blaze.  To blaze a trail means to do something no one else had ever done, providing more opportunities for people to follow.

Example:  When Barack Obama became the first African-American president in the history of the United States, many Americans agreed he was blazing a trail for other African-Americans to become involved in politics.

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flare up

When a fire is burning low, it may burn brighter suddenly if it gets more fuel or oxygen.  This is called flaring up.  In popular terms, a controversy or military action may flare up if it suddenly becomes worse or more intense.

Example:  The war in Afghanistan flared up many times during the 1990s which led to more and more American involvement in the area.

fire up

Similar to flare up, to fire up something means to increase its intensity as when a flame increases its heat.

Example:  In the 2008 presidential campaign, vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin fired up the Republican base with her electrifying speeches.

fiery speech

A good speaker can make a speech with a great deal of passion and energy.  In popular terms, this kind of oration is called a fiery speech.

Example:  During World War II, General George Patton was famous was giving fiery speeches to his troops to get them to defeat the Nazi armies.


As we all know, it is very painful to be burned by a flame or fire. In popular terms, to be burned means to be hurt politically by a particular event or controversy.  Additionally there is a saying that “if you play with fire, you can get your fingers burned.”

Example:  In 2013, Barack Obama was burned by the failed rollout of his Affordable Care Act.

burn out

When a fire dies, it is said to burn out.  When a person works too hard at his or her job, he or she can also be said to burn out.

Example:  Presidential candidates must endure a grueling schedule of endless campaign rallies and fundraiser.  It is amazing that they do not get burned out and become exhausted.

flame out

The phrase flame out derives from the event of a jet engine ceasing to work and the flames stopped coming out of the exhaust.  In popular terms, a person can flame out when he or she tries very hard to achieve something but then fails under public view.

Example:  During the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney was suspected of flaming out if he did not win the November election.

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When one voluntarily tries to put out a fire, this is called extinguishing the flames.  Metaphorically, one can also extinguish problems in society or emotions in people such as passion or hope.

Example:  When Hillary Clinton lost the presidential nomination to Barack Obama in 2008, it extinguished the hopes of many American women of having the first female president.

Next time:  Food and Drink for the Holidays!

2 thoughts on “Metaphors of Fire!

    1. Yes indeed! We also have the metaphorical phrase “trial by fire” indicating evidence of innocence. The idea of fire as being a means of a rite of passage or test of innocence goes back to the Middle Ages. I am not quite sure what you mean by “stepping into our purpose” but fire metaphors can certainly indicate progress to a more advanced stage of life. Thanks for the comment!

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