Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Episode 160: Pour Oil on the Fire

 Click to read more

Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 160: Pour Oil on the Fire

Record Date: July 9, 2022

Air Date: July 20, 2022



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh


And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook

Do ever see something happening or find yourself in a conversation and you realize you can’t just let it go? You gotta give your little bit to it, even though you know maybe it isn’t the best idea? In the end, all you’ve done is Pour Oil on the Fire


What exactly does this phrase mean?

According to Cambridge Dictionary online, to Pour Oil on the Fire means 


to increase or aggravate anger, passion, etc.

End quote 

Oxford English Dictionary mentions (to add) oil to (the) fire (also flame) (and variants) used in similative and figurative contexts to refer to something which makes existing anger, conflict, emotion, etc., more intense. 

This phrase comes in many forms… We can add, pour, or throw anything from fuel to gasoline to oil on a flame or fire. And I’m sure there are other versions. These variations might make one think that the phrase would be difficult to track through time. 

Maybe it was popular in one form originally and in another later on. This is sort of true, in that gasoline wasn’t a term that was used way back when. But it was really just a term that was added to the mix once people began using the word gasoline. 

Because of these, you’ll hear different versions in some of the references, but variations of the phrase have been used pretty consistently since it originally showed up.

Dan: When was that exactly? 

This first attestation of this phrase in print according to Oxford English Dictionary is in the 1548 work

Hall’s Union: Henry VIII - or - The vnion of the two noble and illustrate famelies of Lancastre [and] Yorke by Edward Hall  

I enjoy that this excerpt doesn’t leave much question as to what the meaning of the phrase is.  


There were also certaine other malicious and busye persones who added the Fornace.

End quote 

In this case they used the word furnace, but it seems that the form of the fire is less significant than the fact that some sort of fuel to some sort of fire/flame. 

The phrase was in another work around the same time frame.

Johannes Sleidane’s A famouse cronicle of oure time, called Sleidanes Commentaries, was translated by John Daus and published in 1560.


As the common saying is, powred oyle vpon the fyre.

End Quote 

We see this occasionally in writings from ye olden days and it usually indicates that a phrase was common in the spoken language and the writer expects the readers to understand its meaning without further explanation. 

Up next, we get a hot take from 1713 in a work by James Howell, Esq. titled:

Epistlae Ho-Elianae - Familiar Letters, Domestick and Foreign. Divided into Four Books; Partly: Historical, Political, Philosophical. Upon Emergent Occasions. 


For as soon as he came to the Government, he established the Blood-red as the Complainants term’d it, a Council of Blood, made up most of Spaniards: Egmond and Horn were apprehended, and afterwards beheaded; Citadels were erected, and the Oath of Allegiance, with the Political Government of the Country in divers things alter’d. This pour’d Oil on the Fire formerly kindled, and put all in combustion

End Quote 

I like the image we’re getting here… “put all in combustion”. I feel like maybe that’s the 1560 way of saying things blew up into a hot mess. 

Pouring oil on the fire is one of those expressions that came about easily because all people had an understanding of what the result of taking such an action would be. While oil was not necessarily in every home, it was a fuel source that had been around for centuries and was used for a wide variety of purposes from lighting to weaponry to food, depending on the type of oil. It was also a term that was used a little more loosely before modern times. 

Naturally, as is the case with many of our phrases, this one had plenty of use in political and social commentary. Such is the case in this next example from the section titled, Tumults in Holland published in the June 25, 1748 edition of the Ipswich Journal out of Suffolk, England. 


End quote 

Sounds like a rather unfortunate set of circumstances and perhaps not the best communication flow happening. 

Dan, are you into horse-racing? 

Yeah, me either. There was a gentleman who summed up some of my thoughts on the topic in a letter that was published in the September 23, 1808 edition of the Virginia Argus, out of Richmond, Virginia. It was merely signed with the initials A.Z. 

Here is a bit of the article. 


End quote 

Following that, he describes his efforts to learn more which included extensive research and watching racing. However, he doesn’t seem to have gained any deeper understanding than I feel. So, I’m going to stick with this just not being my thing. 

Up next is another individual who has at least one comment that is rather relatable. This is from an article titled, A Splendid Letter, published in the Richmond Palladium out of Richmond, Iowa in the July 26, 1844 edition. 

Col J.H. Lumpkin, of Georgia, was nominated by the Whigs as one of the Electors of President for the State at large. His response is in the article.


End quote 

He goes on to quote some patriotic verse and describe a little bit of the state of things and then finally gives what I believe to be perhaps the real reason he has chosen to decline when he makes this statement, 


End quote 

I feel you, my man. I feel you. Okay, so that may not have truly been his reason, but the public speaking comment hit home for sure. 

Before we get to our modern uses, we’d like to take a moment to say thank you to our sponsors. 

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon.

You can help support this educational artform and get awesome perks along the way! Tiers start at $3 a month, which get you our polls and community-only discussions, early access to the podcast, and the behind the scenes video for each episode so you can watch along as we make the show. 

At $10 you’ll also get original digital artwork from Shauna once a month featuring exclusive art about an idiom or other turn of phrase. At $15, you’ll also get personal on-air recognition like Pat Rowe does every episode. And of course huge thanks goes to the top spot among our Patrons, our Dean of Learning, Mary Halsig-Lopez. Thank you so much to Mary and all of our patrons. 

If you want to help create Bunny Trails week after week, whatever your budget, we are bunnytrailspod on Patreon. 


Modern Uses

Sia released the song Fire Meets Gasoline on the 2014 album 1000 Forms of Fear. Interestingly, this song was written by Heidi Klum. 

Here are some of the lyrics


So come on, I'll take you on, take you on, I

Ache for love, ache for us, why

Don't you come, don't you come a little closer

So come on now, strike the match, strike the match now

We're a perfect match, perfect somehow

We were meant for one another, come a little closer

Flame you came from me, fire meet gasoline

Fire meet gasoline, I'm burning alive

I can barely breathe, when you're here loving me

Fire meet gasoline

Fire meet gasoline

End quote 

Sia - Fire Meet Gasoline (by Heidi Klum) 

This song, along with the next, both have that modern boldness going. This one used the word gasoline rather than oil and the next uses fuel. However, the concept is as solid as ever. 

The song Fuel to The Fire was released on the 2017 album Rationale by the Zimbabwe-born British singer and songwriter who goes by the name Rationale. He’s known for his soulful R&B and indie pop style with electric influences. 

Here are some of the lyrics, quote

Gone are the days of virtue and honor

Rights that we fought for, burn down the wall

Let it never be said that

We truly learned from darker days

Pressure it keeps falling

On my shoulders from high and low

Ain't no justice in these moments

But we'll find comfort when kingdom comes

They are bleeding you

Of every right we've ever earned

Until we have nowhere to turn

They add fuel to the fire

End quote

Rationale - Fuel To The Fire (Official Video) 

On June 23, 2022 from the user King of Aces 57 on Twitter, quote 

End quote 

Here is another one from Twitter, this time on the topic of sports. On June 29, 2022, user iMiaSanMia says, quote

End quote 

Wrap up...

Whether commenting on emotions, passions, situations, social climates, or the overall human condition, this phrase works well. Whether it is frustration, love, anger, injustice, danger, fear, uncertainty, excitement… any circumstance can be exacerbated. And quite frequently, we humans can exacerbate things with only words. When a situation or state is already heightened, it doesn’t take much. Our words and actions have power. Our inaction and silence have power. That is where our choice lies. And we can influence so much by doing and saying so little. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to remain silent. There is no sense in throwing oil into a flame that has no purpose or a flame that is harmful… Other times, maybe we should add our fuel to the fire. So I suppose, choose your battles carefully. 



That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website


Poll time! 

Recently, we asked our Patrons to imagine this: 

It's a rainy evening. You are off work tomorrow. How do you spend your evening? 

We got a three-way tie on this one: 

Curl up with a good book

Join some friends for board game night


Watching a movie/Binging a show


One of the options presented didn’t get any votes. It was: 

Grab that controller (or keyboard) and spend the evening with some video games

I’m sure plenty of people enjoy this one… but maybe they just don’t have it as their number 1. 


I definitely would go for grabbing the controller if a new game I like has dropped, or a new DLC just came out. I spent every evening for a week playing Age of Empires III recently when the Knights of the Mediterranean DLC dropped. 

Emily noted they chose watch a movie but mentioned her other option with free time, which wasn’t listed, is to do some Crafting


Oooh, crafting is fun! 

While I was in Costa Rica, I discovered my new favorite rainy weather activity - stopping by the hotel bar and then hangin’ in the heated pool, or the hot tub, depending on the outside temp. Obviously, that isn’t going to work here. haha 

In Kansas, tea and a book are my go-to. But I’ll sit and watch from the porch or go play in the rain, if the circumstances are right.


Well, if you’ve ever wanted to take part in our polls, it’s easy! Patrons of all levels can answer them, with new ones posted every Thursday. Head over to to join the fun!



Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember, 


Words belong to their users.

No comments:

Post a Comment