fat is in the fire

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fat is in the fire

Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed Jun 27, 2012 4:51 pm

<1926 “I suppose she was afraid that I might go straight off and hammer him, and then the fat would have been in the fire . . .”—The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (2011) by Agatha Christie, page 40>
It’s obvious from the sound of the expression that it’s not something good and it’s also not too hard to guess at a definition. But what exactly does it mean? In checking I found that, depending on the source, it has somewhat different interpretations, which I’ll list below:


A course of action with inevitable bad consequences has begun; something has been said or done that is about to cause trouble, recrimination, or a violent explosion of anger; the mischief is done and unpleasant results must be faced; an irretrievable blunder has been made and ill consequences will follow; there’s trouble ahead; matters have come to a crisis; the damage is done; it’s too late for a rescue. <Now the fat’s in the fire—the boss arrived early and will see we haven’t even started work.> <The fat’s in the fire and war will be the result.>

Etymology: The saying with its allusion to fat dropping into a fire and causing spitting, sizzling, and possibly a burst of flames was already a proverb in 1562. It was recorded in John Heywood’s Proverbs and Epigrams (see quote below). It was originally used to indicate the complete failure of a plan or enterprise (perhaps the meat being destroyed by flames).

(Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, a Dictionary of Idioms, Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Heavens to Betsy by C. E. Funk)

The following quotes are from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources:
<1562 “Than farewell riches, the fat is in the fire.”—Proverbs and Epigrams (1867) by John Heywood, page 6>

<1827 “If God has not all, and Caesar does not patiently submit to forego his own portion, then (in the vulgar phrase) the fat is in the fire.”—The Gentleman's Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, Vol. 97, Part 1, page 612>

<1940 “If this secretly negotiated deal goes through the fat is in the fire and we all may as well get ready for a full-dress participation in the European war . . .”—Wisconsin State Journal (Madison), 5 September, page 4>

<1988 “And if the Conservatives ever take over, the fat is in the fire, . . .”—Boston Globe (Massachusetts), 16 August>

<2000 “. . . the NYSE [[New York Stock Exchange]] implicitly acknowledged that it knows the fat is in the fire–that momentous, high-stake decisions about market structure and the future of the NYSE itself-are involved.”— Securities Industry News, 5 June>

<2008 “I, like you, believe that the fat is in the fire and it is going to hurt Vanderbilt much more in view of the stand taken by the Chancellor than it is going to help the school.”— Desegregating Private Higher Education in the South: Duke, Emory, Rice, . . . by M. Kean, page 203>

<2011 “The fat is in the fire and the shit has hit the fan . . .”—Who Shot the Water Buffalo? by K. Babbs, page 29>

Ken G – June 27, 2012
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