Ever since I read a fictionalized account of Francis Drake’s adventures in James Michener’s The Caribbean (1989), I have been curious about the nickname of a ship known as the Cacafuego (literally Shitfire or Fireshitter).
Through a tricky ruse, "el Draque" (as he was called in the Spanish of the time) captured the unarmed 120-ton Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de la Concepción- known to her sailors as the Cacafuego - and made his fortune. For this and other exploits Francis Drake was awarded the Knighthood in 1581.
To this day, in my part of the former Spanish Empire the word Cacafuego is still loosely associated with pirates, although when questioned few know why.
Elizabethans seem to have adopted the word into English. However, perhaps out of delicacy, it seems to appear rarely in print.
I found a 1641 text in which one captain excoriated another (seemingly named Coale), using the word to mean braggart (or possibly swash-buckler).
Some historians and etymologists have speculated that the word survived in a less vulgar form as spitfire, to eventually grace the plane flown by the heroes who saved Britain during the dark days of WWII.
Fast forward to Southern-American slang.
Although already in general use in Texas and some other southern American states, it was popularized in the less-than-great American classic film Smoky and the Bandit (1977), and mentioned by Charles Frazier in his book Cold Mountain (1997). Now “Shit fire!” can be heard as an exclamation of surprise throughout much of the US.
Supposedly derived from the old phrase “Shit fire and save the matches!”, I thought it unlikely to come from British English as the safety match was not in use until 1831; however, “match” was used as early as the 1500’s to mean a piece of lit wood.
Due to the paucity of written references I found it difficult to connect the old usage in Britain to that in the US.
Does “Shitfire!” (as used in the US) come from a British etymology or can the blame be laid totally at the Americans’ backdoor?