Howdy, Word Nerds! I missed posting my regular Word Nerd post last week because I was so busy with interviews and other posts, but I’m back again this week with a post inspired by my minister! That’s right. I think it was about two Sundays ago now, but he made reference during the sermon to the events recorded in Numbers, when Korah and his followers challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron.
In response to Korah’s challenge, Moses instructed him and all his followers to put burning coals and incense in censers and burn them before the Lord. Moses and Aaron would to the same and the man the Lord chose would be the one who was holy.
And boy, did He make His choice known! The ground under Korah split open and swallowed him and his household and all associated with him. Then fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense.
As an aside, my minister commented, “I’ve sometimes wondered whether that’s were we get the phrase ‘You’re fired!’ from.” I’m pretty sure he had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, but it got me wondering (I promise I deferred it until after the service!): Where does that expression come from?
Well, it turns out he may have been on the right track. The use of the word ‘fired’ in this context has been traced back to at least the 1880s, and many believe that it is a metaphorical comparison to firing a gun—that is, forcefully discharging something, or in the case of employment, someone. However others have found evidence that miners found stealing lead or ore used to be punished by having their home, or the place where all their tools were kept, burned to the ground.
Quite literally fired!
Being ‘given the sack’ was then the other phrase that came to mind. This one has a much more definite origin. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, when workers began to earn their livings in factories, tradesmen and craftsmen would move around, bringing their tools and supplies with them in a sack. These would be left with their employer for safekeeping. When your services were no longer required, the sack containing your tools was returned to you and you moved on.
You were literally ‘given the sack’.