In French, "Baptême du feu" is a military term that refers to the first combat experience of a new recruit.

Literally translated, it would be "Fire Baptism" or "Baptism of Fire". I don't think an English audience would understand what's meant by that though. It seems that "Baptism by fire" also has strong religious connotations in English.

What is the English military term for this?

Is there a good English translation that maintains some of the "poetic" characteristics of the French version?

  • 1
    Does the French phrase not resonate even a little with Matthew 3.11 or Luke 3.16? Mar 18, 2017 at 12:15
  • 16
    "Baptism of fire" is a common English phrase, and will be understood by everybody.
    – TonyK
    Mar 18, 2017 at 12:21
  • 6
    Closely related is trial by fire.
    – Dan Bron
    Mar 18, 2017 at 14:56
  • @BrianDonovan Not everybody is a Christian. Mar 18, 2017 at 16:22
  • 3
    baptism literally means "full immersion" so agnostics and atheists can use the phrase happily.
    – PatrickT
    Mar 18, 2017 at 18:04

2 Answers 2


The expression is used in English also:

  • Phrase baptism of fire "a soldier's first experience of battle" (1857) translates French baptême de feu.


Baptism of fire:

  • A severe ordeal or test, especially an initial one, as in This audition would be Robert's baptism of fire. This term transfers the original religious rite of baptism, whereby holiness is imparted, to various kinds of ordeal. At first it signified the death of martyrs at the stake, and in 19th-century France it was used for a soldier's first experience of combat.


also baptism by fire:

  • In the military usage, a baptism by fire refers to a soldier's first time in battle. The Catholic Encyclopedia, and writers such as John Deedy, state that the term in a military sense entered the English language in 1822 as a translation of the French phrase baptême du feu. From military usage the term has extended into many other areas in relation to an initiation into a new role - for example the directorship of an arts festival.


Note that the common current meaning of the expression is:

Baptism of/by fire

a very difficult first experience of something: - I was given a million-dollar project to manage in my first month - it was a real baptism of fire.

(Cambridge Dictionary)

Currently it is used more loosely for any difficult first encounter.


  • 1
    According to Google Ngrams, baptism of fire is significantly more common than baptism by fire.
    – TonyK
    Mar 18, 2017 at 12:17
  • 7
    @Josh Can I suggest 'The expression is also often used in English without invoking any religious overtones'? Mar 18, 2017 at 12:23
  • 5
    What @EdwinAshworth said, and, I have only ever heard Baptism by Fire. I have also heard it used in many non-military contexts such as taking on a job duty that you aren't trained/experienced in. Mar 18, 2017 at 21:52
  • 2
    @TonyK Be careful with a general Ngram on that, because baptism of fire is a specific Christian religious term. Mar 18, 2017 at 21:55
  • 1
    @TonyK: This ngram shows that while that is true, the difference is less for AmE than it is for BrE.
    – Drew
    Mar 18, 2017 at 22:06

Baptism of fire is a common expression in English (as is trial by fire, which is not connected at all). Neither is used with any religious connotation nowadays. A baptism of fire is having to perform any difficult task for the first time without training or experience. Baptism BY fire is nonsense but I wouldn't be surprised if people use it. I've never heard it.

  • 1
    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Aug 12 at 22:59
  • Can you provide some argument for your claim that baptism by fire is nonsense? That is the only component of your answer that differentiates it from what has already been posted on this page.
    – jsw29
    Aug 13 at 20:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.