Fan the Flame - Meaning, Usage and Origin

The term “fan the flame” is an idiom, or a common phrase that’s uttered in several western cultures, particularly the United States. You may be wondering what “fan the flame” means and how to use it appropriately. Read on to learn more about this popular idiom.

What does “fan the flame” mean?

The literal meaning of “fanning the flames” means to blow air onto a fire, so as to “feed” the fire with more oxygen, thus making the flames more intense. When used as an idiom, the meaning of “fan the flames” can be understood by dissecting the literal meaning of the phrase.

When this phrase is used as an idiom the word “flames” can be viewed as a negative emotion, like ire or hate, and “fan” can be viewed as an action or a statement that would intensify negative emotions.

In other words, the term “fan the flames” as an idiom means doing something to strengthen a reaction or an emotion. The term doesn’t always have to have a negative connotation; it can also be used to describe positive situations, such as love or courage.

Examples of "fan the flame" in a sentence

The following sentences illustrate the appropriate use of the “fan the flames” idiom.

  • The president’s rhetoric fanned the flames of anger between the people of the nation and the world.
  • Constantly raising taxes only flames the flames of the wealth gap between the ultra-wealthy and the poor- and middle-class.
  • The government’s response to the coronavirus fans the flames of wealth and health disparities.
  • News reports use fear and anxiety to further fan the flames of divisiveness.
  • New studies have proven that social media has fanned the flames of depression and anxiety among teenagers.
  • Stay-at-home orders have only fanned the flames of childhood obesity.
  • Forcing businesses to close only fans the flames of global poverty.
  • I had a lot to say about the situation, but I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want to add fuel to the fire.
  • Billy only added fuel to the fire when he accused the other team of cheating.
  • The boy’s flirting with the girl fanned the flames of her attraction toward him.
  • The new and unjust rules put into place at the workplace fanned the flames of courage that resulted in the employees quitting.
  • Nothing fans the flames of love like an unexpected romantic gesture.

What is the origin of the “fan the flames” idiom?

As discussed, when taken literally, the “fan the flames” idiom means to blow oxygen onto a fire so as to strengthen the intensity of the flames. Though it isn’t known when the use of this idiom originated, one of the first records of this term being used in a metaphorical sense was in The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens in the mid-1800s.

What phrases or idioms are similar to “fan the flames”?

There are several other phrases and idioms that mean the same thing as “fan the flames”. Examples include:

  • Add fuels to the flames
  • Pour gasoline on the fire
  • Add insult to injury
  • Make matters worse
  • Make a bad situation worse
  • Intensify an already difficult situation
  • Do more harm than good
  • Worsen a conflict
  • Rub salt in the wound (“salt” represents the action and “wound” refers to the response)
  • Twist the knife (“twist” represents the action and “knife” refers to the response)
  • Making a bad situation even worse
  • Stirring up emotions or a reaction
  • Inflaming feelings of hate/anger/fear/love/hope, etc.
  • Instigating an explosive response

Are there any phrases that are opposite of the “fuel to the fire” idiom?

Anything that refers to an action or a statement that would calm a situation or sooth a response would be considered opposite of the “fuel to the fire” idiom; the term “douse the flames”, for example. In this phrase, the word “douse” is used to calm or lessen a situation a response.

Final Thoughts

There are several instances where the idiom “fuel to the fire” can be appropriately used. The use of this phrase adds interest to language and effectively illustrates how a behavior or a statement can heighten a feeling or a reaction.

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