We were all sitting around watching The Apprentice and began wondering, why does Donald Trump say, "You're fired!" Is it like burning at the stake...really fired?
-- Pat N. Paul; U.C. library
The term comes from guns, not flames. And since it's a gun metaphor, we shouldn't be surprised that it originated in the U.S. We exported it to our partners in speech, the British, who tried it for a while then decided they still preferred their less confrontational "sacked" (a direct borrow from 17th-century France) or the more euphemistic and perplexing "made redundant." No one knows how long the word "fired" (in the Donald sense) existed in common speech before it appeared in print in the 1870s. At that time it was usually followed by the word "out." One of the first print examples was in a newspaper article from the North Dakota frontier, talking about misbehaving students who should be "fired out" of school if they didn't follow orders. So, the original meaning suggested some poor guy being physically ejected from someplace. The "out" bit was dropped fairly soon, leaving us with "fire," meaning the Donald would like to wad you up into a little ball, load you into his six-shooter, open the lobby doors, pull the trigger, and propel you far out over the parking lot. Or, as some word wizards suggest, he'd like to stand you up in the break room and shoot you.