Please stand by. Or run. Your choice.
Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me about the origin of the phrase “hang fire”? — Neil Jones.
Sure, but you’ll have to sit through a brief disquisition on my TV viewing habits first. Bear with me; it’s relevant. Judging by your email address, you’re in Australia, so you may not get The History Channel, one of the more popular basic cable channels up here. It used to be known as “the Hitler Channel” because whenever you tuned in you saw Panzers rolling into Poland, but THC has diversified in recent years with “reality” shows. One of them, Pawn Stars, is set in a Las Vegas pawn shop where people attempt to unload some seriously weird old stuff. A few days ago I caught a rerun in which the guys at the shop acquired a 1750 blunderbuss (a primitive shotgun, from the Dutch “donderbus,” thunder gun) and then attempted to fire it. The first two tries didn’t work, apparently because the powder in the external “pan” under the hammer didn’t flash through the little hole at the base of the barrel to set off the main charge. The third try was very loud.
Those initial attempts to fire the blunderbuss were a perfect illustration of the origin of “hang fire,” which the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines in the literal sense as “(of a firearm) to be slow in communicating the fire through the vent to the charge.” The term itself is just about as old as that blunderbuss, first found in print (so far) in 1782 (“In consequence of which the piece is slower in going off, or, as sportsmen term it, is apt to hang fire.”). Since “hanging fire,” failing or balking at firing, was a problem in all firearms that used an external spark to ignite the main charge (including cannons aboard warships), the phrase may well have been in use for decades before it showed up in print.
The “hang” in “hang fire” is our common verb “to hang,” meaning “to suspend” in a variety of senses, used here in a figurative sense of “to hold in a state of inaction,” the same sense we use in the phrase “hung jury,” meaning a jury unable to reach a verdict. “Hang fire” can also mean “to delay something that was expected to happen,” since a gun like a blunderbuss or musket that “hangs fire” may fire on its own in a moment or two (making such weapons inherently dangerous to use).
“Hang fire” has been used in figurative senses since the early 1800s in the sense of “to be delayed or be slow to happen” (“Leyden’s Indian journey ?. seems to hang fire,” Sir Walter Scott, 1801), and it has usually been used in reference to something that would reasonably have been expected to happen, but did not, at an appointed time (“A book produced anonymously hung fire for six weeks,” 1892). The phrase is still very much in use (“Key rail projects hang fire as MMRDA holds back funds,” Indian Express, 2011), and is sometimes used to mean “hold off” or “deliberately delay an action” (“Alexis Jordan wants to be a role model but realises she needs to hang fire,” Daily Star (UK)). Such usage gives the phrase a voluntary connotation it lacks in its literal “fail to fire” origin; there’s a big difference between pulling the trigger of a gun and having nothing happen and deciding not to fire it in the first place.
A historically related but quite different phrase is “flash in the pan,” originally referring to a similar situation where the powder in the “pan” of a flintlock firearm “flashes” just fine, but the main charge fails to ignite. “Flash in the pan” has been used figuratively since the late 17th century to mean something that attracts great public notice but has no lasting effect or success (“These were flash-in-the-pan early Nineties pop stars who combined European dance music with tints of R&B and afro-Caribbean pop,” 2011). Unlike something that “hangs fire,” a “flash in the pan” attracts attention at least at the outset, even if it turns out to be, in the lingo of the recording industry, a “one-hit wonder.”