We're having a discussion about this phrase, and we can come up with two possible meanings, but we're not sure which one is the more right. Does it mean to provide a group with something they already know about or desperately need?

Also, does anyone know the history of it?

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    I would interpret that to mean enlightening certain people about something of which they are ignorant, or giving them access to a technology they don't already possess. It sounds like it is implying a superiority on the part of the fire bringers and an inferiority on the so-called natives. It's most likely used in a figurative sense, and may imply a grudging contribution, a noblesse-oblige, or something like that.
    – Robusto
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 14:48
  • Per @Peter Shor's answer, the expression refers to a marketing technique that should not be followed as a model. Basically because all the natives (in prehistoric times as well as throughout recorded history) already have fire. Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 23:17

4 Answers 4


This is probably a reference to the story of Prometheus, who gave mankind the gift of fire in Greek mythology. In most versions of the story, mankind either has not discovered fire or has had it taken away from them, possibly because the gods don't want humans to develop skills and technologies that could make them a threat. Disobeying Zeus, Prometheus steals fire using a makeshift torch and brings it to mankind, showing them how to cook their meals and so forth. Things generally do not go well for Prometheus after that, but mankind benefits from the gift forever after. Several other cultures have remarkably similar myths, according to Wikipedia.

This would suggest that "bringing fire to the natives" means giving people something, possibly a material thing but especially vital knowledge or enlightenment, that they desperately need.

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    Off-topic: The Toltecs purportedly had a similar myth, but instead of Prometheus bringing mankind fire, Quetzalcoatl brought mankind chocolate. Commented May 27, 2011 at 16:56
  • Interesting answer – while the Greek gods may simply have been protecting themselves, it's also possible some of them viewed fire as a threat to mankind. In that light, reticence to bring fire to the natives could imply a condescending sort of protectiveness.
    – kojiro
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 19:31
  • @Peter Shor: Interesting, I didn't know that one. Was Quetzalcoatl punished like Prometheus was? Commented May 27, 2011 at 20:42
  • Quetzalcoatl was definitely punished by being exiled. Whether it was for bringing chocolate to the natives may depend on which version of the legend you subscribe to. Commented May 27, 2011 at 21:45

For the last 30,000 years or more every tribe of humans has had fire. This is why the expression "They think they're bringing fire to the natives" (or savages) is a phrase that describes the attitude of technological companies who don't believe their customers know anything about anything. This site explains why the '"bringing fire to the savages" sales and marketing model' is not a good idea.

In most of the sites linked in the answers to this question, the phrase is indeed being used ironically. However, on a few of the sites, the writers seem to have completely missed the irony, and are using the phrase at face value (i.e., that bringing fire to the natives is a good thing, rather than telling people something they already know about). Somehow, I'm not surprised by this.

  • Shor: Can't argue with that. God knows why OP thinks the legend of Prometheus has anything to do with this one. I still think it's a daft turn of phrase that apparently gets misunderstood very easily, but I'll vote to delete my own answer. If only to conceal the fact that I read it literally, didn't recognise the deliberate irony, and thus misunderstood it myself! Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 23:13
  • @FumbleFingers: You're not alone. At least three of the sites Google found using this phrase missed the irony as well (and this is out of roughly 20). Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 23:21
  • Shor: Well I'm more alone now than I was when I first posted my answer. So far as I can tell you & I are the only ones on this page who even understand the intended meaning, and without your help I'd have still been (albeit somewhat grumpily) in the 'mistaken majority'! Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 23:27
  • ...apropos which, in the UK we say taking coals to Newcastle. Which I always understand to typify a daft business model, not a poor marketing technique. So maybe there is room for a phrase to mean the latter. I'm just not convinced this one is up to the job. Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 23:36

I don't know the history of it, but the usage in this article suggests that it means "the natives" don't know about fire.

It sounds insulting to me, as though one is heroically imparting some modern technology on backwards, ignorant people, but it might simply imply that one is providing a basic, useful tool to a group that hasn't yet discovered its existence.

This is a new one to me. I'm interested to know what others have discovered.

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    The usage in that article is woefully ambiguous; it's not clear to me whether he's being sarcastic. In this article, on the other hand, it's clear the natives already know all about fire. And in this one, it's clear they don't. Commented May 27, 2011 at 15:59
  • @Peter Shor Ambiguity aside, I think it's clear that it does not mean fire is something they already know about.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 16:03
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    which article are you talking about? The first one I quoted says "Our biggest fear in starting Warren Expressed was that people would think we were carpet-bagging-know-it-alls returning home to bring light and fire to the natives." I think it's quite clear that carpet-bagging-know-it-alls can't tell the natives anything they didn't already know. Commented May 27, 2011 at 16:06
  • @Peter Shor You must have been editing while I was commenting. I didn't see the articles until just now. I disagree with your interpretation of the first article. I think the CBKIAs didn't want people to think that the CBKIAs thought they were bringing something the people didn't know about. In short, still implying that fire is something the natives do not already know about.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented May 27, 2011 at 16:19
  • Sorry about the simultaneous editing and commenting. I should be better about not saving edits until I think I'm done. Commented May 27, 2011 at 16:50

"Bringing fire to the natives" essentially means providing game-changing domain knowledge to a group who can benefit greatly from it, but would not be savvy enough on their own to attain it. i.e.: a consultant walking into a business situation where the leaders of the company are not very sophisticated, and helping them lean up operations.

It infers that the party benefiting from the information may not utilize it to its full potential, and or could be dangerous. It is often applied this way (somewhat condescendingly) by technology consultants.

[EDIT] Here are a few examples of the phrase in use:

  1. http://www.worldaffairsboard.com/science-technology/39154-climate-change-real-27.html#post400393

  2. http://boards.fool.co.uk/compulsory-pensions-vote-here-7693568.aspx?sort=whole, post #75624 ( about 1/5th of the way down)

  3. http://www.reddit.com/r/programming/comments/f3u0n/how_facebook_ships_code/c1d6mdd (this one is explicit)

  4. http://www.reddit.com/r/programming/comments/f3u0n/how_facebook_ships_code/c1d6mdd (In "What I Took Away," toward the bottom.

  • Got any references? Also please don't make the its versus it's mistake on english.stackexchange.com. It's too ironic. ;-)
    – kojiro
    Commented May 28, 2011 at 1:38

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