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"We didn't start the fire, it was always burning since the world's been turning" is from a song by Billy Joel, but I vaguely remember Malcom X saying it in one of his speeches that I heard on YouTube. Is this an old phrase? Where had it originated?

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closed as not constructive by FumbleFingers, Mr. Shiny and New 安宇, Robusto, simchona, aedia λ Feb 17 '12 at 17:29

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No. -- I didn't. –  Kris Feb 16 '12 at 15:02
Voting to close as "not constructive". Since a commonplace form of words will have been kicking around at least since English was capable of supporting it, even if not since the world started turning. –  FumbleFingers Feb 16 '12 at 19:00
@FumbleFingers, I think he must have been asking: What is the origin of the figurative sense of "we didn't start the fire" to mean "we didn't set this process in motion"? I doubt it has always had that meaning since "at least English was capable of supporting" the phrase. –  Ben Lee Feb 20 '12 at 8:42
@Ben Lee: I'm no professional linguist, but I can't imagine there was ever meaningfully a time when language was only used literally. And "fire" has probably always been used metaphorically, so this question was really never going anywhere. –  FumbleFingers Feb 20 '12 at 15:30
@FumbleFingers, well I didn't mean to suggest there was ever a time that language was only used literally, that would indeed be an absurd suggestion. I'm sure "fire" has also always been a common metaphor. Neither of these points address the specific phrase "We didn't start the fire" to have the specific figurative meaning of "We didn't set this process in motion" (and I think this is a real phenomenon worth addressing). But this disagreement is going nowhere, so I guess there's nothing more to say. We simply disagree. –  Ben Lee Feb 20 '12 at 16:02

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