Saturday, August 19, 2006

Fire: A Conundrum

I've got way too much time on my hands if this is what I'm worrying about, but here goes. We're in the realm of etymology, word and phrase origins, and this has been bugging me for a while: With cannons, artillery, rifles and pistols, why do we Americans say "fire" when what we mean is "shoot?"

As far as I know, ours is the only military tradition that does this, though the phrase has caught on just through the influence of American culture. But if you watch the classic movie Sink the Bismarck, all the British officers are shouting "Shoot!!" as a command. In German it's schiessen! or schiess auf!, derived from the verb schiessen, to shoot. In Italian it's sparare, shoot, nothing derived from fuoco, meaning the stuff with flames. Again, in French it's tirer or d├ęcharger, not feu or a derivative. And that exhausts the limits of my library's translating dictionaries.

I have a theory. Our first war, the Revolution, was against the British, a foe that spoke the same language and had the same military traditions. Hell, some of our officers had trained side by side with their officers.

On a battlefield of that time, the only way to get orders to your troops was to run or ride madly around shouting them at the top of your lungs, or have your junior officers pass the orders along in the same way. I'm no soldier, but I can't imagine anything worse from a commander's viewpoint than to have your troops uncertain whether they should be shooting or not. In the smoke, chaos, and terror of battle, with enemy officers at the other end of the field shouting, "Shoot! Shoot!" at their own artillerymen, it must have been critical to come up with a command to your men that could not be confused with the British officers' commands to their own men.

So why "fire?" Think about a cannon of the period. A cast iron tube open at one end, loaded with powder and ball, and with a tiny hole primed with powder at the other, closed end. To set it off, you touched a lighted torch -- literally fire -- to the hole, which carried the spark to the main charge and boom!

Since the American military is the only one that has its origins in such a unique moment in history, ours is the only one that uses "fire!" instead of "shoot!", and of course it's been generalized to all firearms, long past the time of cannons discharged with torches. It's interesting that with archery even we never talk about "firing" an arrow. We always shoot it. Bringing gunpowder into the equation seems to be where everything changes.

But, aha!, you say. What about the German military in the movies? What about, say, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, with the big fight inside, outside, and around that outrageous tank, and the Nazi officer screaming "Feuer!!"

If there's one German word every American teenage boy knows, it's scheiss. It's a slightly different spelling from schiess, and a different pronunciation, rhyming with "shine" instead of "sheet," but it's too close for comfort. I think Spielberg must have known how disastrous it would be, how easy to change thrilling excitement into derisive laughter, if his target audience even suspected that that officer was, in effect, ordering, "Ready! Aim!! SHIT!!!" So it wasn't realistic or true to German tradition, but the change just had to be made.

Well, there's the theory, anyway. It's logical, and it holds together, but is it true? I'm well aware of the dangers of folk etymology. I've tried researching this on the web, but gotten nowhere. So if you're into military history, or, maybe, have a brother who is (you know who you are), maybe we can find out.


Anonymous said...

I don't know the answers, and will defer to your skill at web research. It bothered me no end in the Two Towers movie when Aragorn instructed the Elvish archers to "Fire!" and I've puzzled over the same question ever since. Obviously, you have more time on your hands than I for this, but not necessarily much, and there are certainly worse things you could do with it.

Anonymous said...

I don't mean to imply there are worse things you could do with it. There are cetainly worse things I could do with it.

It should not surprise you that I am at a gate at an airport and am bored. Thank goodness for free airport wi-fi.