Firefighting without the fire

« previous post | next post »

Bruce Balden was curious as to why the Chinese terms for "fire department" (xiāofáng duì 消防队) and "firefighting" (xiāofáng 消防) do not have the word for "fire" (huǒ 火) in them.  I had thought about that long ago, but never made an attempt to determine why it is so.  Now that Bruce has brought up this issue directly, I am curious how true it is for other languages of the world as well.

For East Asia, since Japan also uses the same expression (shōbō 消 防), it became a question of determining whether the modern terminology for firefighting developed first in China or in Japan.

It has been suggested that people in premodern times superstitiously avoided the use of the word "fire" (huǒ 火) in contexts where it might hint at the possible occurrence of such a mishap in one's own surroundings.  I can attest to this sort of taboo among my own Chinese relatives.  For example, my wife and her family wouldn't be happy if I said "drive safely" or "have a safe flight", because it might somehow bring on what I hoped wouldn't happen (an accident).  They would much prefer that I say something like "yīlù shùnfēng 一路顺风" ("bon voyage!).

In old times, where there was a fire, people would say zǒushui le 走水了 ("water is flowing / going", virtually always as a euphemism for something being on fire) rather than zháohuǒle 着火了 ("caught / on fire").  By verbally referring to shui 水 ("water"), the opposite of huǒ 火 ("fire"), people thought at least they would not be making the situation worse by explicitly referring to the disaster they were confronting.  I believe that this manner of speaking still persists in certain sectors of Chinese society.

Just taking a brief look at encyclopedia entries, it is striking that in early Edo (1603-1868), when firefighting got its formal start in Japan, members of various teams and brigades were generally referred to as hikeshi 火消し ("fire extinguisher" [person]), so there was no taboo on including “fire" in Japan at that time. The earliest citation for shōbō 消防 ("firefighting") is 1814, with most of the examples for the term coming after Meiji (1868-1912), when firefighting duties were reorganized under the new government.

The information gathered below indicates that the Chinese term xiāofáng 消防 ("firefighting") was borrowed from Japanese shōbō 消防, which has the same meaning.  We may understand the Chinese term as a short form for xiāomiè 消滅 ("eliminate; extinguish") and fángzhǐ 防止 ("prevent; guard against"). The term xiāofáng 消防 ("firefighting") is written with Chinese characters, but the collocation was formed by Japanese. It was passed from Japan to China and Taiwan in the Late Qing Dynasty.

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the tasks of extinguishing and preventing fires were generally called huǒzhèng 火政 ("Administration / Control of Fire"), but there were no regular units especially charged with this task.

In the Edo period, Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604-1651) established a brigade for fire protection, called hōshobikeshi ほうしょびけし 奉書火消 ("credentialed firefighting [unit]").  Because of the incredible number of fires in Edo (Tokyo), the 8th shogun Yoshimune (1684-1751) ordered the organization of brigades to put out fires among the daimyos' houses, Edo castle, and the bakufu's various buildings.  Henceforth, the firemen were referred to variously as daimyōbikeshi 大名火消 ("firefighting [unit] of the daimyo"), shoshobikeshi 所々火消 ("firefighting [units] of different places"), machi hikeshi 町火消し ("town firefighters"), etc.

Another interesting occurrence of the term hikeshi 火消し ("fire extinguisher" [person]) is in the title of this 1852 work by Utagawa Yoshitsuna (active 1848–68):  Edo machinami hikeshi no zu 江戸町並火消し之図 ("Painting of extinguishing fires among rows of houses in Edo").

After the Meiji Restoration, in 1881, the police bureau established an official unit, shōbōgumi 消防組 ("firefighting team"), for fire protection and prevention. Thus the term shōbō 消防 ("firefighting") was already well established in Japan before it passed to China and Taiwan.

This suggests that, for modern firefighters, "prevention" became an express part of the mission.  This accounts for the transformation from hikeshi 火消し to shōbō 消防, where hi 火 or kasai 火災 could be dropped because the reference was immediately obvious to everyone, and Japanese serially abbreviates anything and everything possible.

Sources:  here (pdf [in Chinese]) and here (Wikipedia article [in Japanese]).

Incidentally, I recall seeing old photographs of early Japanese firefighting companies that made them seem almost like spectacular acrobatic troupes. They did, in fact, practice acrobatics in their spare time, and competed in annual festival displays.

[Thanks to Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Linda Chance, Fangyi Cheng, Sophie Ling-chia Wei, and Yixue Yang]


  1. Chris Waigl said,

    December 12, 2015 @ 4:51 pm

    In French, you have sapeurs-pompiers, or simply pompiers. For example, the Paris fire service is called officially "Brigade de sapeurs-pompiers de Paris". Sapeur, from the verb saper ("undermine, interrupt, sap"), refers to interrupting the fire progression (by removing fuel from it) and pompier, from the verb pomper ("pump"), refers to extinguishing it with water. As in your example, the implicit fire context is understood.

  2. Gene Anderson said,

    December 12, 2015 @ 5:40 pm

    In Spanish it's bomberos, pumpers. Maybe Spanish had an ancient taboo on mentioning fire…

  3. David Engle said,

    December 12, 2015 @ 9:58 pm

    Chris, this link including your comment have been added to a gig span I took in Paris of a fire brigade:

  4. Doctor Science said,

    December 12, 2015 @ 11:37 pm

    I believe that this manner of speaking still persists in certain sectors of Chinese society.

    Which sectors? Why those sectors and not others?

  5. Matt said,

    December 12, 2015 @ 11:50 pm

    On the other hand, we might ask why English "Fire Department" doesn't contain any word corresponding to 消 or 防!

    Note that in Japanese "fire extinguisher" is "消火器", lit. "exinguish-fire device."

  6. David Morris said,

    December 13, 2015 @ 1:57 am

    I haven't personally encountered the fire department in Korea. Korean Wikipedia's page is 소방본부(消防本部) (sobang bonbu) and a photo I found online shows a truck with '(name of city) 소방'. Meanwhile, Google Translate gives 불 (bul) as the most general word for 'fire'.

  7. Peter Taylor said,

    December 13, 2015 @ 2:52 am

    The Catalan is similar to the Spanish, but as with so many Catalan-Spanish cognates it is one letter shorter: bombers. Makes for some amusing moments with English-speakers.

  8. Ken Miner said,

    December 13, 2015 @ 6:01 am

    I have the impression that several Western languages distinguish between a conflagration (Sp. 'incendio'; Germ. 'Brand"; Fr. 'incendie') and other fire (Sp. fuego'; Germ. 'Feuer'; Fr. 'feu'). I don't know how obligatory these distinctions are. But English doesn't beat about the bush: a fire is a fire!

  9. Ken Miner said,

    December 13, 2015 @ 6:04 am

    @ Peter Taylor When I was a kid I was sort of an internationalist and was always getting envelopes from the Netherlands labelled 'monsters', causing consternation in my family. It means 'samples'.

  10. languagehat said,

    December 13, 2015 @ 9:26 am

    Russian is straightforward: a firefighter is пожарный [pozharny] or, more colloquially, пожарник [pozharnik], both formed directly from the word пожар 'fire (conflagration),' the former with an adjective suffix and the latter with the well-known -nik ending.

  11. The suffocated said,

    December 13, 2015 @ 10:10 am

    In old times, where there was a fire, people would say zǒushui le 走水了 ("water is flowing / going", virtually always as a euphemism for something being on fire) rather than zháohuǒle 着火了 ("caught / on fire").

    Hmm, what old times? The word "着火" was already in use in the famous 14th century Chinese novel 三國演義 (Romance of the Three Kingdoms). In contrast, I have almost never read the term "走水" in Chinese literature. The word can be seen in 清稗類鈔 (1917) though, whose author stated clearly that 北方謂失火為走水也. I think Dr Mair is mistaking sporadic or local usages as common ones.

  12. sophie said,

    December 13, 2015 @ 11:42 am

    Ladder acrobatics from local firefighters are still a staple of many Japanese festivals.
    Tokyobling’s blog has a big collection of photos of these acrobatics. He states they were probably created to train new recruits in climbing up buildings.

  13. möngke said,

    December 13, 2015 @ 12:03 pm

    @ Ken Miner

    So does e.g. Arabic – حريق ḥarīq "fire, conflagration" vs. نار nār "fire" (also "Hell"), and my native language (Slovene). I've always found English to be rather strange in that regard.

    Incidentally, in Slovene, a firefighter is "gasilec" (masc) / "gasilka" (fem), lit. "extinguisher," from the (imperfective) verb "gasiti" – "to extinguish." An actual fire extinguisher is a "gasilni aparat" (lit. "extinguishing machine / apparatus"). Not sure about Arabic; I'd guess theoretically it would be around the same "extinguishing" root (اطفاء iṭfā' "extinguishing, putting out" (also e.g. a lamp)) – though in Jordan it always seemed to me it was just Civil Defense putting out the fires. (Much as they seem to do almost everything else.)

  14. P'i-kou said,

    December 13, 2015 @ 5:04 pm

    @ The suffocated

    Zoushui occurs in the Dream of the red chamber and in Qing novels. I don't get the impression the claim was that zoushui is attested earlier than zhaohuo, but just that it's an old-ish euphemism.

  15. Chris C. said,

    December 13, 2015 @ 6:06 pm

    "water is flowing / going", virtually always as a euphemism for something being on fire

    My perverse way of thinking immediately led me to wonder what they would say to warn of an incipient flood?

    This must be a common superstition worldwide, though. My Eastern European grandparents would never mention the word "cancer" for the same reason.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 1:12 am

    I am grateful to P'i-kou for his succinct and apt response to The suffocated. It was indeed my intent to say no more than that zoushui was an oldish and folkish way for some people to refer to an unwanted fire, not that it was the oldest or most pervasive and common way.

    When it comes to the oldest way to refer to an unwanted fire, the Zhou li 周禮 already has shihuo 失火.

    I'm in the midst of an intensive five-day conference on Sanskrit poetics at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem, so I wasn't able to reply to The suffocated right away, and I'm not able to check things here, but I recall that I had come across zoushui in Qing sources (including HLM) and possibly also in Ming texts, so I was pleased to see that P'i-kou confirmed that.

    Brendan O'Kane has now had a chance to check further, and here are his brief findings:


    Taking a (very) quick look through the 俗文库 and Hanji, 走水 in this sense seems to be limited to Qing writings (I found hits in 紅樓夢 and the sequels 紅樓復夢 and 紅樓夢補, as well as 清風閘, 野叟曝言, and 于公案奇聞, among others, all clearly referring to a fire breaking out). It may have earlier roots, and I'll keep looking, but for now all of the hits seem to be clustered in the Qing.
    To my surprise, a lot of the hits I found for 著火 during the Ming look more like cases of 著 as an aspectual particle — 打著火堆, 執著火把, 取著火種, 冒著火, etc. — but the term does show up in a couple of places (e.g., 三國志通俗演義 — "大江面上一船著火") in the modern sense.


    Given that zoushui is a folkish way of referring to an unwanted fire, one would not expect to find it well documented in written literature, especially not in elite, "proper" literature. Nonetheless, it does show up in a variety of premodern sources, as P'i-kou and Brendan have shown.

  17. ajay said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 7:28 am

    "Fireman" is one of those English words like "dust" and "cleave" that has two completely opposite meanings. If you have a fire in your house, the firemen will arrive and put it out. But if you have a fire in the firebox of your steam locomotive, the fireman is the guy who keeps it burning.

    I was sort of an internationalist and was always getting envelopes from the Netherlands labelled 'monsters', causing consternation in my family. It means 'samples'.

    One of the joys of having small children is that you can convince them that a demonstration is a process of removing monsters.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 9:59 am

    Fangyi Cheng makes the very interesting finding that, in earlier times, zouhuo ironically means the opposite of what it came to mean in later times, namely, "put out a fire".


    Here is what I find for “走火”, “着火” and “失火”.

    For “走火”, it means “put out a fire” in the beginning.

    Texts from the Warring States period:

    韓非子/ 卷十四/ 外儲說


    From the Song dynasty

    冊府元龜/卷三百九十五上 將帥部五十六上

    高祖令延視之,延乃馳馬按矟直前,未至四十步,震火燒面,延唱殺,繞浮圖走火,遂 滅,延還,鬚眉及馬尾騌皆燋。

    The earliest text includeing “走火”, which means “be on fire”, is from the Qing dynasty basing on my searching. But I think there might be earlier sources, like you said, such as from the Ming dynasty.

    Qing dynasty



    As for “着火”, the earliest texts I find is from the Jin dynasty. It seems it had two meanings in very early, “close to/approach fire” and “make/light a fire”.

    Jin dynasty, “close to fire”.

    抱朴子內篇校釋/卷十一 仙藥


    Northern Wei dynasty, “make a fire”



    Tang dynasty, here “着火” can be understood in both ways.

    千金翼方/ 卷二十四/ 瘡癰下/ 濕熱瘡第十方三十四首/ 松脂膏




    Song dynasty, here I am not very sure it should be understood as “approach fire” or “make a fire”.



    Ming dynasty, “light the fire”

    西遊記/ 第四十五回  三清觀大聖留名 車遲國猴王顯法


    For “失火”, it mean “catch fire, be on fire” since the Warring States Period.



    戰國策/卷三十二 衛人迎新婦/段859


  19. BZ said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 10:03 am

    In English (and I guess French) we have the ambulance which does not mention sickness or injury in any way. I am guessing that superstitions have little to nothing to do with this (or do they?). Come to think of it, the same goes for hospital. I wonder how much this stuff is just regular language evolution.

  20. Terry Hunt said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 10:47 am

    @ ayay.

    And of course, in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Montag was a Fireman, but not of the kind one was initially led to expect.

  21. Kenny Easwaran said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 11:51 am

    For those of us who don't know any East Asian languages, can you explain what xiaofang and shobo do literally mean, if they don't have any part referring to fire? Until I saw people discussing the French and Spanish words (meaning "pumper", approximately), I couldn't imagine what you would even call the department or the job without using a word for fire!

  22. Jorge said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 12:37 pm

    In the Navy, we have Fireman and Fireman's Apprentice (E-3 and E-2, respectively). These are folks headed into the engineering ratings. Once they become NCO's, that goes away. So, you can have an Engineman Fireman, but once she hit's E-4, she is just Engineman Third Class.

  23. Nicholas Feinberg said,

    December 14, 2015 @ 6:42 pm

    @Kenny: "We may understand the Chinese term as a short form for xiāomiè 消滅 ("eliminate; extinguish") and fángzhǐ 防止 ("prevent; guard against")."

    One could imagine some primordial term, 'Fire Prevention & Extinguishing Department', which each language chooses to abbreviate differently.

  24. Gav said,

    December 15, 2015 @ 9:17 am

    A fireman in a colliery is (or was) something else again. Not sure if they still have them.

  25. Andrew said,

    December 15, 2015 @ 1:01 pm

    Kenny: both the Chinese and Japanese words 消防 consist of 消 (extinguish) and 防 (prevent). Since apparently the construction was invented in Japan and then loaned back into Chinese we can guess that the Japanese fondness for dropping parts of speech when they are assumed to be understood is at work here – 火 (fire) is floating around invisibly so the meaning is something like '(fire) extinguishing and prevention'.

  26. Hans said,

    December 16, 2015 @ 9:10 am

    German has Feuerwehr, lit. "fire defence / fight". Although German has a separate word for "conflagration", Brand (ultimately related to English "burn"), it uses the General word here. OTOH, "fire protection, fire safety" is Brandschutz.

  27. julie lee said,

    December 16, 2015 @ 5:20 pm

    Thank you for the post and comments. I don't think anyone has yet mentiioned alternative Mandarin phrases for "firefighting", which are also commonly used, and which pop out from my laptop's Chinese software:

    救火 jiu huo "rescue fire" (i.e. fight fire, firefighting),救火隊 jiu huo dui "rescue fire squad" (i.e., firefighters).

    Here there's no beating about the bush.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    December 16, 2015 @ 5:25 pm




    Last Thursday, the engine of an Air China passenger plane caught fire before taking off at Fuzhou Airport. The spark was observed by a Fuzhou Airlines plane from behind, and the crew immediately reported what they saw. Fire trucks responded in minutes, and then made a crucial mistake—they sprayed the witnessing Fuzhou Airlines plane with white foam until alerted by the airport’s control center that they were aiming at the wrong one.

    Fortunately, the fire was put out in time and nobody was injured. Unfortunately, nearly $20 million has to be spent on the Fuzhou Airlines plane to repair two of its engines, whose cores had been impaired by the foam. Fuzhou Airlines has submitted an insurance claim.

    The lack of basic firefighting skills was criticized by a professional firefighter quoted in the Chinese media, who said that airport firefighters mistaking normal engine emissions for smoke from a fire “really shouldn’t happen.” Some Internet commentators compared the loss with the relatively lower indemnity provided to air crash victims in China, quipping that: “It seems that the plane is worth more than human lives.”

  29. julie lee said,

    December 16, 2015 @ 5:25 pm

    p.s. For those not familiar with Chinese or Mandarin, Chinese is often very succinct and elliptical. "Rescue fire" would mean "coming to the rescue in a fire" or "rescuing people and property in a fire".

  30. Victor Mair said,

    December 16, 2015 @ 5:47 pm

    @julie lee

    Thank you for mentioning these alternative terms.

    jiùhuǒ 救火 1,530,000 ghits

    jiùhuǒ duì 救火隊 510,000 ghits

    xiāofáng 消防 66,300,000 ghits

    xiāofáng duì 消防队 1,200,000 ghits

    My impression, moreover, is that jiùhuǒ 救火 and jiùhuǒ duì 救火隊 are seldom used as terms for professional, official firefighting. Their use in regard to firefighting is more informal and in general more recent.

  31. Victor Mair said,

    December 20, 2015 @ 10:21 pm

    From Song Ju:

    In ancient China, the affairs about fire-fighting are called“火政” (huǒ zhèng).
    火政huǒ zhèng :古代有关防火救灾的事。
    《史记•五帝本纪》记载,黄帝在安排国计民生时,就明确提出要有节制地使用火,以防范火灾,为此,黄帝还设置了专门管理用火安全的官员,称为“火政”。到周朝时称司煊、司耀。《汉书•五行志上》:“古之火正,谓火官也,掌祭火星,行火政。”《左传•襄公九年》“九年春, 宋 灾, 乐喜 为司城,以为政” 唐 孔颖达 疏:“传言‘以为政’者,以为救火之政耳。”

    The record of the professional fire brigade began from the Song Dynasty, people call them “潜火兵”, and the group of them was called “潜火队””火隅”.

    The professional fire brigade was called “救火兵丁” in Yuan Dynasty, and “防范火班” in the early of Qing Dynasty.

    In the middle of 19th century, Shanghai Municipal Council organized the first modern fire brigade in Shanghai, the office in charge of the fire brigade affair was “火政处(or水龙公所)”, and the fire brigade was ”救火队”. This “水龙” is an kind of machine which sprays water by pressure. In the middle and later of the Qing Dynasty, the voluntary fire brigade in Beijing was called “水龙局”.
    The title of the fire brigade change to “消防队” at the year 1935.
    1866年8月17日《字林西报》(North China Daily News)刊登了公共租界工部局小海斯的信,宣告了公共租界工部局火政处的成立,下属第一、第二泵浦车队外,还有一个钩梯救火队。小海斯成为火政处首任总机师。火政处的人员组成为:总机师(火政处长)、助理机师、救火队(由队长指挥)。

    The phrase “消防” borrowed from Japanese in the 19th century, but it was not common vocabulary at the beginning. And I am interested in the reason or motivation of the changing from ”救火队” to “消防队”.

    And I remember that “走水” is a Beijing dialect phrase(北京土语词汇)(I need to check it in the dictionary dialect phrase). In my opinion, this phrase became well known recently in China mostly because of the popularity of the TV play about Qing Dynasty.

  32. January First-of-May said,

    December 21, 2015 @ 6:27 pm

    The Russian name for ambulance, скорая помощь, literally means "quick help". What the quick help is for is supposed to be obvious (to be fair, it kind of is). The specific transport, incidentally, is called карета скорой помощи ("quick help carriage" – as in the kind of carriage that was around in the 19th century).
    There are two common Russian words for hospital – больница (not sure of the exact derivation, but the root боль "pain, illness" is obvious) and поликлиника (*polyclinic – presumably it's supposed to mean something along the lines of "multipurpose medical center").
    The languagehat comment was essentially correct regarding the Russian words for "firefighter".

  33. languagehat said,

    December 21, 2015 @ 7:50 pm

    больница (not sure of the exact derivation, but the root боль "pain, illness" is obvious)

    Yes, it's больный 'sick' plus a nominalizing suffix (-itsa). Other terms Dahl gives as synonyms are лечебница and недужница, formed with the same suffix from лечебный 'curative' and недуг 'ailment' (adj. недужий).

  34. languagehat said,

    December 21, 2015 @ 7:51 pm

    Oops, I meant больной 'sick,' of course; juggling too many bits of Cyrillic!

RSS feed for comments on this post