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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?

  • Not to be flippant or anything, but is shit fire and very hot/spicy Indian curry, connected in some way? I've also heard the expression "fire in the hole" used that way. I may be watching too many stand-up comedians... – Mari-Lou A Apr 13 '17 at 6:44
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    The link betweeen the old BrE usage and the more recent AmE one is not clear. Jonathon Green in his Green's Dictionary of Slang defines shitfire , a general excl. var. on SE hellfire. – user66974 Apr 13 '17 at 6:57
  • According to The The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English the expression is from the 70's - Shitfire! used as an oath US • Shitfire! I don't know. — Darryl Ponicsan, The Last Detail, p. 78, 1970 • “Shits fire, boy! All we got to do is send a whistle, and when she hears it ...books.google.co.uk/… – user66974 Apr 13 '17 at 7:04
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The earliest reference in OED is from 1598, from John Florio's Italian/English dictionary A worlde of wordes:

Cacafuoco, a hot violent fellow, a shite-fire.

We can say that the term was coined by J.Florio. The books An Encyclopedia of Swearing (by Geoffrey Hughes) and Joy of Swearing (by M. Hunt, Alison Maloney) support this claim also.

John Florio was born in London and he was of Anglo-Italian origin. Thus, the word shitfire is of British origin.


Interesting note: Cacafuego is a rarely used loan-word in English also and there is an entry of the word in OED where it is defined as:

A spitfire; a braggart.
   (The name of the Spanish galleon taken by Drake in 1577.)

Here is the etymology from OED:

< Latin cacāre, Spanish cagar, Portuguese cagar to discharge excrement + Spanish fuego (Portuguese fogo) fire < Latin focus hearth.

  • very interesting. Can you link this to the American usage? – Cascabel Apr 13 '17 at 4:28
  • Cassell's Dictionary of Slang (by Jonathon Green) has shitfire! excl: [1940+] a general excl. It is from the noun shitfire that I've provided the origin of. – ermanen Apr 13 '17 at 4:40
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From A Garden of Words by Martha Barnette:

  • The Spanish word cacafuego is usually defined as "a braggart" or "spitfire," but its literal meaning is "shit-fire." This expression became somewhat popular in England after Sir Francis Drake captured a ship of the same name.

The term is of Spanish origin, a literal,translation of cacafuego which first appears in writing in the Italian English dictionary A Worlde of Wordes by John Florio (1553–1625) (who was born in London), a linguist and lexicographer, a royal language tutor at the Court of James I, and a possible friend and influence on William Shakespeare.

  • This word, which means “braggart,” is Spanish in origin,literally translating as “shitfire.” It was the nickname of a ship captured by the Pirate Sir Francis Drake, who is presumably the braggart referenced by the word.

From (wordorigins.com):

  • I don’t think Drake is being referenced as a braggart. The nickname of the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción was an obvious metaphor for her armament of guns, then quite a new development in maritime warfare.

  • Also, the first (1598, which considerably pre-dates the first for cacafuego) citation for shitfire in the OED comes from John Florio’s Italian dictionary where it is given as the translation not for the Spanish but for the Italian cacafuoco.

  • Of course, given that so much of Italy was under Spanish domination at the time, so much so that Spanish was the language of officialdom and the elite in several Italian states, it’s moot which language borrowed it from which, or whether they each happened on it independently. But if both the Spanish and Italian versions were known in England at the time, it’s no surprise that it was the Spanish one that stuck - the ‘aggressive, boastful Spaniard’ was, for good reasons, a figure far more present to the English mind than the ‘aggressive, boastful Italian’.

Note:

  • Spitfire appears in English at about the same time as shitfire. I don’t suppose it’s possible to tell whether this was a euphemism for it, or a genuinely independent metaphor. (After all, if you have a clean and literal mind, when you face someone and hurl defiance, anger or cannonballs directly at them, it’s a more logical metaphor to say that you spit fire rather than shitting it.
  • So what is it? Spanish or Italian in origin? John Florio's dictionary has cacafuoco (Italian) in 1598, but your answer also states that Cacafuego is Spanish in origin. – Mari-Lou A Apr 13 '17 at 7:07
  • @Mari-LouA - John Florio translated the term in his Dictionary, but the origin of the term is most likely Spanish as explained above. What is unclear is the relation between this old usage and the the more recent AmE one. See my comments. – user66974 Apr 13 '17 at 7:10
  • I think that the term was mutuated from the Spanish language at that time. "given that so much of Italy was under Spanish domination at the time, so much so that Spanish was the language of officialdom and the elite in several Italian states" – user66974 Apr 13 '17 at 7:15
  • I miss your point, what I mean is that cacafuoco, is probably one of the many Spanish words that entered the "Italian" usage at that time. – user66974 Apr 13 '17 at 7:24
  • In other words, Florio translated a well-known Spanish expression, a loanword, into Italian and included it in his dictionary. It's possible, but your answer doesn't make this clear. – Mari-Lou A Apr 13 '17 at 8:38

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