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Where does the phrase "to get on like a house on fire" come from? (Meaning "to immediately get on very well with someone", particularly a new acquaintance.)

It's quite common here in the UK, but even as a native speaker it strikes me as bizarre.

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To get along very well or To form a successful relationship right from the start –  Ronny Yaron Feb 11 at 6:19

2 Answers 2

From Google Answers:

I think this may be lost in the mists of time. The exact Washington Irvin quote mentioned below by pinkfreud appears below, but I have found an earlier reference from 1741 quoted by Thomas Carlyle.

Title: A history of New York, from the beginning of the world to the end of the Dutch dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker.
Author: Irving, Washington, 1783-1859.

Page 473
In proportion, therefore, as a nation, a community, or an individual (possessing the inherent quality of greatness) is involved in perils and misfortunes, In proportion does it rise in grandeur - and even when sinking under calamity, makes, like a house on fire, a more glorious display then ever it did in the fairest period of its prosperity?
http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=moa;cc=moa;xc=1;xg=1;type=simple;rgn=full%20text;q1=like%20a%20house%20on%20fire;view=reslist;subview=detail;sort=occur;start=1;size=25;didno=ACB2403.0001.001

Title: History of Friedrich the Second, called Frederick the Great
Author: Carlyle, Thomas, 1795-1881.
Publication Info: New York,: Harper & brothers, 1862-1874.

Chap VI
p385
Quoting Burgermeister Spener on 4th Dec 1741
"On the contrary, the love of your burger subjects - that, if you can kindle it, will go on like a house on fire (Ausbruch eines Feueres), and streams of water won't put it out."
http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=moa;cc=moa;xc=1;xg=1;type=simple;rgn=full%20text;q1=like%20a%20house%20on%20fire;view=reslist;subview=detail;sort=occur;start=1;size=25;didno=ABY8829.0003.001

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The OED's oldest citation is also from A History of New York: "At it they went like five hundred houses on fire". However, it seems to me that the quotation above has a different meaning and is not germane to the modern expression. On the other hand, I think the Carlyle is spot on. –  Colin Fine Oct 20 '11 at 16:20
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@ColinFine I agree about the meaning of Irving quotation above, it's not the same at all, but interesting the OED citation with the correct meaning is from the same book! –  Hugo Oct 20 '11 at 19:42
    
@ColinFine I was a little suspicious of the dating of Carlyle; apparently he's quoting some 1741 text, but this exact phrase only really takes off around 1820 onwards. This is because it is a late 19th century translation from German "Ausbruch eines Feuers" ("outbreak of fires") that is similar but not quite the same thing, so the 1741 dating is somewhat misleading. These two things show the problem of computerised searches of exact strings... –  Hugo Oct 20 '11 at 19:49
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Hugo's answer from "History of Friedrich the Second…" is spot on. The reference from Washington Irving, however, is more literal and does not strike the same meaning as the idiomatic expression. –  Bruce in Germany Mar 28 at 11:25

The OED says

orig. U.S. like a house on fire (also afire) : as fast as a house would burn; very rapidly or vigorously. Freq. in to get on like a house on fire : (a) to progress rapidly and successfully; (b) (of two people) to establish quickly and maintain a very good relationship.

I think that's the best answer you're going to get.

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There's also like the blazes –  FumbleFingers Oct 20 '11 at 13:59

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