Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Spitfire

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 14, 2013

You may have heard your grandmother or a great-aunt say that someone’s a real spitfire, and you may have wondered what they mean by that.  A spitfire is a highly excitable or a quick-tempered person.  Of course, there is also an airplane from World War II as well as a sporty little car by that name as well, but in this case the word spitfire refers to the person and not the plane.

Everyone knows that Charlie Sheen created a stir in 2010 and 2011 with his wild antics and unpredictable behavior.  But no matter how outrageous he was, his friends and enemies couldn’t help but have a roast for him.  And so, in the E-online website, the exclusive TV Scoop entitled, “Charlie Sheen On Being Roasted” I’m Challenging There Geniuses To Go Deeper” on August 16, 2011, Ken Baker and Natalie Finn began their article with this:

That Charlie Sheen’s a real spitfire.  So, it only makes sense that he be roasted, right?

The Record-Journal newspaper of Meridien, CT published on December 15, 1975 carried a news article about the British actor, Arthur Treacher’s passing.  Typecast as the archetypical butler on stage, screen and television, he was a veteran of 60 movies.  In recounting some of his history, the article included this insight into how he wound up being typecast in the rule of the butler:

One day, Lupe Velez,known as the “Mexican Spitfire” visited the set, and told the 6-foot3 actor she had a boyfriend as tall as he.

Unimpressed, Treacher replied:  “Really?”  The director took note, said, “play the part like that” and a character was born.

When Rita Moreno was interviewed on November 17, 1960 by Bob Thomas about her role in “West Side Story” her opinion about stereotyping certain actresses in the role of spitfire was clear.  In fact, she is said to have lamented, “Why, oh why, do Latin girls on the screen always have to be tempestuous sexpots?”  The topic of spitfires and Latin women turned to the subject of Lupe Velez where Rita was quoted as saying:

“What a terrible fate,” Rita sympathized.  “I’d like to have known her.  I’m sure she wasn’t really a spitfire, but a warm human being.”

The journalist gave more insight into Rita’s comments by adding the following in his article entitled, “Rita’s Sour On Sexpot Roles.”

In her earlier Hollywood career, Rita herself got caught in the spitfire category.  She may have contributed to it through a somewhat gay social life.  She seems different now.  Perhaps it was her friendship with Marlon Brando, perhaps two years of intensive dramatic training.  At any rate, she seems level-headed and adjusted to the problems of pursuing a career in Hollywood.

Now the term spitfire wasn’t reserved just for Latin women.  In the Spokane Daily Chronicle, an article entitled, “Cat Knows Hank Isn’t a Setup” published on March 22, 1932 had this to say about pugilist Leslie Carter:

Be it known that Leslie (Wildcat) Carter, the negro spitfire from Seattle, is most serious about his bout with Hank Vogt Thursday night at the Auditorium.

Carter not only came to town three days early, but went directly to the Y.M.C.A. for seven hard rounds of conditioning work.  He planned about eight stiff sessions this afternoon, and will go through a brisk limber-up Wednesday.

The Sydney Mail newspaper, like most newspapers of its day, loved to run fictional stories from time to time.  It was the equivalent of the movie-of-the-week seen on television these days.  On December 20, 1890 (referred to as the Christmas supplement) the newspaper ran a story by John Strange Winter entitled, “The Storyteller.”  In “Chapter XIV: Waiting” the following passage is found:

But the Major had had a fair chance of winning his wife’s love, and had, in his carelessness and violence, lost it for ever.  Truth to tell, his admiration for her had never been so great as when she held herself back from the clasp of his arms and by a single look indicated that she did not mean to kiss him.  ” ‘Pon my soul,” he said to himself when she had gone to bed and he was smoking his last cigarette — ”  ‘Pon my soul, there’s more, far more in the little woman than I thought, and, by Jove, how she rounded on me; what a little spitfire she looked, and how pretty.  As for Valerie — oh! damnation.”

Russian author Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky (11 November 1821 – 9 February 1881) wrote “The Idiot” which was published in serialized form in “The Russian Messenger” in 1868 and 1869.  In this story, the following is found:

But you’ll admit what a riddle it must have been for us when that calm, cold, little spitfire, Aglaya–(for she stood up to her mother and answered her questions with inexpressible contempt, and mine still more so, because, like a fool, I thought it my duty to assert myself as head of the family)–when Aglaya stood up of a sudden and informed us that ‘that madwoman’ (strangely enough, she used exactly the same expression as you did) ‘has taken it into her head to marry me to Prince Lef Nicolaievitch, and therefore is doing her best to choke Evgenie Pavlovitch off, and rid the house of him.

The Merriam Webster dictionary claims the first use of the word was in 1656 but doesn’t provide proof to support the claim.  However, in the 1600s the Spanish word for braggart was cacafuegoFuego means fire and caca means  to emit.  Therefore, one who was a braggart — a cacafuego — was one who emitted fire (rather than provided substance).

Interestingly enough, there’s a historical note that ties this expression to a Spanish galleon named the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción.

In 1578, Sir Francis Drake (1540 – 27 January 1596), while traveling up the left coast of South America, captured the galleon, Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, with one shot.  With that, he won the spoils of the ship:  enough gold, silver and jewels to put England’s economy back on solid footing.  However, it was said that it took so long to unload all the silver bullion from the captured ship to Drake’s ship that the sailors jokingly referred to it alternately as the Caca Fogo (emits gunfire) or the Caca Plata (emits silver).

As oftentimes happens with words said in jest, the play on words between the shipmates use of the monicker Caca Fogo and the Spanish word for braggart, (somewhere in the generation between 1578 and 1600), defaulted to cacafuego as the word most often used.

It must be pointed out that the Florentine’s also had a word that sounded similar to the Spanish word cacafuego and that word was cacafuoco (which in modern-day Italian means handgun).  But no matter what language it was in, it still meant the same thing back then.

Somewhere between 1600 and 1656, the word transformed into spitfire with the meaning being someone with a fiery temperament.

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