Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Hanging Fire

How did I get to be almost 40 years old and I have never heard the expression "hanging fire" with respect to bills in congress close to the end of a term... I have to assume that this is a common expression -- not less than 5 times in the last 2 hours have I heard someone on NPR (including Lehrer newshour, Marketplace, and All Things Considered) use the phrase...

I found it rather difficult to get a good definition and history of the phrase searching the web via Google, but came across a number of interesting things along the way. The most succint was Allwords:
Idiom: hang fire
    To delay taking action.
      Thesaurus: delay, procrastinate, stall, stop, vacillate, wait, hang back; Antonym: press on.
    To cease to develop or progress. Definition of hang

Which does not, unfortunately, provide the etymology. Word for Word started me down the right path however:

Hang fire with the polysyllabicsFANS of plain English are not always fans of thesauruses, because they can prompt novice writers to use needless polysyllabics. But they do have their uses (that's the thesauruses, not the fans of plain English . . . no, hang on, they have their uses too).

Reader Terry Carroll ( had been having trouble finding a definition of the phrase hang fire: "I'm unable to find it in a dictionary," he writes, "but from context, I gather that it refers to a project that has been postponed through procrastination. But why hang fire?" Smaller (meaning household) dictionaries are likely to miss phrases such as this, but a thesaurus gives a clue. It lists hang fire alongside misfire, flash in the pan and fizzle out - all terms relating to gunnery or musketry. When a soldier lit the fuse in a cannon there could be quite a delay until the charge ignited, and this was known as hanging fire. Similarly a flash in the pan related to a failed attempt to fire a flintlock musket, when the flint produced a spark in the priming pan but did not ignite the charge.

Word for Word

Which led me to this fun excerpt from Mark Twain's "The Innocents Abroad..."
And the great sash they wear in many a fold around their waists has two or three absurd old horse-pistols in it that are rusty from eternal disuse-- weapons that would hang fire just about long enough for you to walk out of range, and then burst and blow the Arab's head off.

hang fire - definition of hang fire by the Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia.

And now back to work!


JohnM said...

Thanks for the info. I had never heard the phrase used outside this song. I never thought much about it but I always assumed it was a drug reference.

Rolling Stones - Hang Fire

MaryAnn said...

Have you heard of the poem "Hanging Fire" by Audre Lord? Adds another element to the definition!

Yvonne said...

I am delighted that I have found a good explanation for "hanging fire." I had it right in context, but I always like to confirm. Just read the phrase in a book about Marcon's early tests.

Ze Jun said...

Hey thx alot!
Your definations really help me for my poetry analysis of "Hanging Fire" by Audre Lord! =]

Quillman said...

Thanks. Found your post googling after seeing the phrase in a local article about election endorsements. It's my first brush with the phrase. How hard would it be to have a phrase etymology dictionary thing compiled by... someone!

Best I know of is the urban dictionary:

David S.