Arctic temperatures have descended upon your city, the heating is out, and so you light a log in your fireplace.
Now the log burns, and, cuddling up on your sofa with a nice cup of tea, a plate of cookies, and a good book, you enjoy your little fire.
But what exactly does the fire do?
It makes no sense to say the fire “burns.” What burns is the log, not the fire.
Besides, there can be no fire without the concurrent process of burning, which renders the immediate juxtaposition of the terms “fire” and “burn” tautological and hence awkward.
While a log can exist in a burning as well as in a non-burning state, fire can exist in a burning state only. The instant the fire stops, the burning stops. One neither does nor causes the other. One is the other. Shouting “fire” in a crowded theater obviates the need to add “burns.” The two concepts are inseparable. As soon as you’ve said one, you’ve already said the other.
So the word “fire,” standing on its own, adequately conveys the notion of “burning.” Using both terms in rapid succession (e.g., “wildfires burning uncontrollably” as opposed to “wildfires spreading uncontrollably” or simply “uncontrollable wildfires”) sounds like a form of stuttering. But more importantly, it is the combustible material which burns, not the fire itself.
Since fire is the process of burning, burning cannot be what fire does.
If you want a log to burn in your fireplace, you must set fire to a log. It follows that if you wanted a fire to burn in your fireplace, you’d have set fire to a fire, and a pre-existing one at that. But how can you set fire to a fire? It doesn’t compute.
To speak of a “burning building” makes sense. To speak of a “burning fire” sounds silly.
Try as you might, you’ll never get a fire to “burn.” Unlike wood, paper, or ethanol, fire isn’t flammable (or inflammable, since I’m merely operating a blog, not a truck that carries gasoline or explosives, and am hence unconcerned with “the safety of children and illiterates,” to quote from The Elements of Style).
Bottom line, fire does whatever it is that fire does when it’s being fire, and there appears to exist no simple and meaningful verb to denote this activity.
Of course, in a wider sense, fire does all sorts of things. Fire crackles, it gives light, and it warms the room. Fire produces smoke as it rages, consumes, devours, and destroys. Fire attracts skeeters and keeps coyotes at bay. Fire may spread, die down, or go out.
All of these verbs, though, describe fire’s various qualities, effects, and advanced behaviors without capturing the nature of its fundamental, stripped-down-to-its-essence activity that gives rise to those various qualities, effects, and behaviors in the first place.
The sun shines.
Fire shines, too. But shining, once again, is an effect of what fire does, not its core activity.
What does the sun do that causes it to shine?
Is the sun the equivalent of a burning log, except one that undergoes thermonuclear fusion instead of rapid oxidation? Or is the sun that thermonuclear fusion itself?
In other words, does the sun “burn,” or is the sun made of fire, albeit of the nuclear variety, in which case to say that the sun “burns” makes as much sense as to say that fire “burns,” namely none?
What does ice do?
Ice doesn’t “freeze.” Some water froze, i.e., turned to ice. Once formed, ice—assuming it’s not melting—doesn’t really “do” anything as it sits there in the cube tray in your freezer. Ice is passive. It simply exists.
Fire, on the other hand, seems to be an extremely active phenomenon. It definitely does something … but what?
Tags: Words & Language