Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Feet To The Fire

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 24, 2014

When you hold someone’s feet to the fire what you’re doing is causing someone to feel personal, social, political, or legal pressure on someone in order to induce him or her to comply with action that he or she previously would do. In other words, it is a forceful way of holding someone accountable for his or her actions, and hopefully to fulfill that commitment. It is not, however, akin to holding a gun to someone’s head.

In Kabul, Afghanistan the Pajhwok Afghan News published a story on April 8, 2011 that reported on the meeting between United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton. Coupled with that story was information on U.S. Ambassador, Susan Rice, and her testimony before a Congressional committee on matters pertaining to the electoral processes in Afghanistan, and the death of UNAMA personnel in Mazar-e-Sharif. The newspaper reported the following:

“So this process is still dragging out in terms of efforts to review certain aspects of the 2010 polling, parliamentary electoral process, and I think the United Nations has been the sort of focal point of the international community’s efforts to hold feet to the fire and ensure that the processes are not manipulated for the political interests of any actor,” Rice told lawmakers.

On May 16, 2007 Senator Herb Kohl, Chairman of the US Senate Special Committee On Aging spoke to the matter of health care at a hearing before the Special Committee On Aging. What was said at the meeting was published by the US Government Printing Office in a document entitled, “Medicare Advantage Marketing And Sales: Who Has The Advantage?” and listed under S. Hrg. 110-207.  In his opening remarks as the chairman, he said:

As we know, the number of Medicare Advantage plans being offered to beneficiaries is growing rapidly. So we must remain vigilant in our oversight of these plans, and I intend to do so. If more hearings are necessary to hold feet to the fire, then we will do that. Cleaning up these marketing-and-sales practices is a high priority of mine. So let me be clear: This issue will not go away after this hearing; and, of course, neither will I.

In 1961, the National Council On The Aging published a report entitled, “Building For Older People: Financing, Construction, Administration” and was published by the University of Michigan. In this report, the following was stated:

A wise counselor will hold feet “to the fire” until housing cost considerations are realistically examined. It is surprising how few people actually have totalled up their present housing cost.

Of special note is the fact that in medieval Europe, trial by ordeal (also known as judicium Dei) was a trial based on the premise that God would help the innocent by performing a miracle and save the accused. One such trial was to hold the accused’s feet to the fire. If the feet were unburned, or if they healed within 3 days of being held to the fire, it was taken as a sign that God had intervened on behalf of the accused, thereby proving his or her innocence. Of course, most either confessed to the crimes to which they were accused or died as a result of the trial.  It was a favorite ordeal of the Spanish Inquisition (1478 – 1834) which replaced the Medieval Inquisition begun in 1184.

The fact that the idiom was used with quotation marks in the 1961 report indicates that it was an idiom that was not necessarily well-known although it was part of the language at the time.  It is therefore reasonable to assume that it came into vogue in the years leading up to 1961.  Idiomation therefore pegs the idiom to some time after WWII, and most likely some time in the 1950s.

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One Response to “Feet To The Fire”

  1. mutanatia said

    Oh wow!! This is one of those that, though it doesn’t originate as a saying in the Middle Ages, it has a literal counterpart as a possible basis from which the phrase originated. That is so cool!

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