Many people are probably used to the phrase “fight fire with fire” because of Metallica’s 1984 album, Ride the Lightning. There’s a song on it called “Fight Fire with Fire.” It does use the phrase with the meaning intended. The song could be considered an “end of the world” anthem.
The meaning of the phrase “fight fire with fire” is to respond to an attack with the same or a similar method. Parents and teachers will often tell children and students that fighting fire with fire doesn’t work.
While Metallica’s song may be the most well-known source of the phrase in these current times, it is certainly not the origin of the phrase “fight fire with fire.”
Shakespeare used the idea in 1595 in King John when he wrote, “Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire; / Threaten the threatener and outface the brow / Of bragging horror.” However, Shakespeare did not actually use the phrase “fight fire with fire.”
I had always thought that the phrase came from the military because of the weapons used, but I learned differently. In order to understand why the phrase “fight fire with fire” means what it does and why it makes sense in its origin, some history needs to be known.
It was common for US settlers to set what were called “back-fires” to help control forest fires. These were set to help clear debris that could easily catch on fire. These fires were what we would no call “controlled fires” or “controlled burns.” While these fires were and are controlled for the most part, they still made and make homeowners nervous. This is understandable as the fires don’t always go as planned.
Mary Kirkland recorded this in her novel A New Home – Who’ll Follow? Or, Glimpses of Western Life , which was written under the pseudonym Mary Clavers.
Even though this novel is set in the 19 th century, some controlled fires still don’t go as planned. In 2000, 200 homes near Los Alamos, New Mexico were burned down because of a controlled burn that didn’t stay controlled.
However, in general, fighting fire with fire works to a degree because without the controlled burns, wild fires would be rampant.
The first time that the phrase “fight fire with fire” is seen in print is in 1852 in A Step from the New Word to the Old, and Back Again by Harry Tappan. He wrote, “Smoking was universal among the men; generally cigars, not fine Havanas, but made of Dutch tobacco, and to me not very agreeable. I had some Havanas with me, and so I lighted one to make an atmosphere for myself: as the trappers on the prairies fight fire with fire, so I fought tobacco with tobacco.”
By now, many books bear the title “Fight Fire with Fire” or at least part of the title contains “Fight Fire with Fire.” The phrase is also used in new stories. A recent story is about how scientists are trying to fight cancer with cancer cells. Reporters have said that they are trying to fight fire with fire.
Amazon.com: fight fire with fire: Books. (n.d.). Amazon.com: Online Shopping for Electronics, Apparel, Computers, Books, DVDs & more . Retrieved January 26, 2011, from http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=fight+fire+with+fire&x=0&y=0
Lamb, R. (n.d.). HowStuffWorks “Controlled Burns and Backfiring”. Howstuffworks “Science” . Retrieved January 26, 2011, from http://science.howstuffworks.com/nature/natural-disasters/fight-fire-with-fire1.htm
Lamb, R. (n.d.). HowStuffWorks “Can you really fight fire with fire?”. Howstuffworks “Science” . Retrieved January 26, 2011, from http://science.howstuffworks.com/nature/natural-disasters/fight-fire-with-fire.htm
METALLICA – FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE LYRICS. (n.d.). Lyrics . Retrieved January 26, 2011, from http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/Fight-fire-with-fire-lyrics-Metallica/D5B619A55EB276D14825688D
Martin, G. (n.d.). Fight fire with fire. The meanings and origins of sayings and phrases . Retrieved January 26, 2011, from http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/fight-fire-with-fire.html
WINSLOW, R. (n.d.). Novel Effort to Fight Cancer With Cancer Cells – WSJ.com. Business News & Financial News – The Wall Street Journal – WSJ.com . Retrieved January 26, 2011, from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB100014240527487035558045