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What are the origins behind our use of "house is on fire" as opposed to "fire is on the house"?

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3 Answers

The correct phrase is, "house is on fire," but you also might have been thinking of "it's on the house!" when you wrote "fire on the house."

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On fire is a standard English term meaning burning, or ablaze. It goes back many centuries.

The alternative fire is on the house is simply garbled English. I assume you've just come up with it yourself by playing with word order.

NOTE - Google lists only 8 results for fire is on the house, of which your actual question here comes at the top of the list!

With due deference to RiMMER, I'll just say it's technically feasible for fire is on the house to make sense in certain somewhat surreal contexts. At a subsidised Arsonists' Convention, for example, where the attendees might be expecting fire on the house (i.e. - for free).

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+1 for the garbled English in this situation, but it isn't really a garbled English. if a "drink" can be "on the house", maybe somewhere else, a "fire" can be "on the house" too, for whatever reason, although with a different meaning than original phrase. maybe you should update your answer to reflect this, if you agree with what I claim. –  RiMMER May 8 '11 at 22:42
    
+1 for the subsidized Arsonists' Convention –  Jim Nov 14 '11 at 18:03
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The OED says s.v. "on", definition 12.a:

a. With nouns of action (especially nouns derived from or closely related to verbs) or state, indicating the activity, state, or condition of a person or thing; = upon prep. 10. Also (with nouns denoting a subject of study, etc.), indicating the sphere of activity of a person.

It also says:

Parallel compounds of a prep.1 are used as well as or instead of on with nouns of state and condition, e.g. afire, alive, asleep: see etymological note.

The etymological note explains that these words (afire, alive, asleep, and many more) were originally "on fire", "on live", "on sleep" etc. For some reason "on fire" has survived, where many of these phrases continue only in the merged form.

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Nice :) There are some more modern expressions that use on for state - for instance, on holiday, on guard, on the blink (slang for broken), which might help the OP remember this expression. –  psmears May 9 '11 at 7:13
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