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I searched this site and also searched etymology online and could find nothing about this question.

The Ngram AmE shows that the phrase 'fired from job' began in the early 1920s for AmE and the Ngram BrE indicates that BrE only begins to have results from the late 1960s.

In BrE, the phrase 'being sacked' (Ngram BrE) is more popular and is more understandable as one would carry a sack home with any personal possessions, much as today people are seen with the ubiquitous cardboard box.

Where does the expression come from and why did it suddenly appear in the 1920s in the USA ?

Note: The Ngrams probably do not mean a lot, as there must be overlap with other meanings of 'being sacked' and merely querying 'being fired' would be useless.


Edit After Comment : The Ngram for 'given the sack' in BrE. Some correlation with 'being fired' in AmE.

Further Edit : The OED does not (that I can find) refer to losing a job but there is a considerable entry for 'fire' with regard to the discharge of a weapon so I am beginning to see that 'fire' from a job means to 'discharge' someone and the analogy is to weaponry.

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    The same metaphorical development of the verb fire (first: lighting fire; then: using fire to ward off or repel; then: shooting off a projectile with fire; then: ‘shooting off’ a person from their job) is also found in the Nordic languages, where it’s definitely attested well before the 1920s, though I don’t know how long before. (Also, is sacked really more understandable? The explanation you give never occurred to me before – I’d always sort of half-imagined someone being stuffed into a sack, which somehow meant losing their job…) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 11 at 23:38
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    I thought 'being sacked' involved being put into a sack and left on the side of the road. – Mitch Feb 12 at 1:39
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    As a BrE native, I can confirm the existence of "given the sack". I could easily be persuaded it is the older form too. – Martin Bonner Feb 12 at 8:19
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    @NigelJ: In US English, the distinction mentioned by Vicky is between being "fired" and being "laid off", although we would understand "made redundant" to mean the latter. – Kundor Feb 12 at 19:31
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    @AzorAhai In the old days, one wasn't provided with tools at work. One provided 'the tools of one's trade' oneself. And over time, would build up a collection at one's place of work. One would be handed a sack in which to remove one's own possessions from the premises, just as today, we use a cardboard box to empty one's desk. – Nigel J Feb 12 at 22:08
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to fire in the sense of being fired: Etymonline.com

The sense of "sack, dismiss from employment" is recorded by 1885 (with out; 1887 alone) in American English. This probably is a play on the two meanings of discharge (v.): "to dismiss from a position," and "to fire a gun," influenced by the earlier general sense "throw (someone) out" of some place (1871).

and from the OED

  • fire 1879
  • transitive orig. U.S. slang. To dismiss (a person) from a job or position; to sack.
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    I think the key is "discharge" here. – Ian Kemp Feb 12 at 10:21
  • In Danish we have "fyre"=fire, but the etymology here is from lower German "firen", meaning celebrate/take the time off. It would be strange if there isn't a similar connection in English – Stefan Feb 12 at 21:24
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There’s a slightly earlier sense of “fired” meaning “eject or dismiss” that just dates to 1877 according to the OED:

She was advised to ‘hire a hall’, and the chairman was asked to ‘fire her out’.
Annals of the Great Strikes in the United States

The OED’s earliest citation in the no-more-job sense is from the 1879 Cincinnati Enquirer (reprinted here):

Professional Slang... Fired, Banged, Shot Out—When a performer is discharged he is one of the above.

The OED connects this to firing a gun: just like a bullet, whoever gets fired is outta there real fast.

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    I've never heard of "banged" to mean fired. Ironically, nowadays, if a boss "banged" an employee, it'd likely be the boss that gets fired instead of the employee. Language is weird. – maxathousand Feb 12 at 17:15
  • So it seems likely that some time before 1879, the slang terms "fired", "banged", and "shot out" became popular among theatrical performers. For one reason or another, "fired" became universal, while "banged" and "shot out" both fell into disuse. – Tanner Swett Feb 12 at 22:36
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This source, Right Attitudes, admits that its explanation for being fired may be a legend.

...legend has it that the phrase originated in the 1910s at the National Cash Register (NCR) Company.

The founder of NCR, John Henry Patterson, was "quirky". The article states that he was "a food and fitness fanatic and had his employees weighed every six months." This quirkiness makes the following explanation of the origin of being fired marginally more plausible.

The article cites two cases of Patterson dismissing an employee -- one of whom was Thomas Watson Sr., who went on to found IBM -- and then ordering his desk taken outside and set afire.! Thus, although it was the employee's desk that was fired, the phrase was used of the employee.

The article states its source as:

Keynote address by Mark Hurd, then-president and COO of Teradata at Kellogg School of Management’s Digital Frontier Conference on 17- and 18-Jan-2003. Teradata was previously a division of NCR Corporation, the company Patterson founded.

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    Which would appear to be contradicted by the above references from the 1800s. – Hot Licks Feb 12 at 2:45
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    @HotLicks Is it not likely, if the NCR story is true, that Patterson was giving physical expression to the existing term "fired"? It also seems a bit extreme to destroy a piece of your own property just because you had dismissed the person who had been using it. – BoldBen Feb 12 at 11:54
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    @BoldBen - Yep, this is likely the case. Patterson's actions were a physical expression of the already-existing idiomatic meaning. (But keep in mind that someone as wealthy as Patterson at that time wouldn't have batted an eyelash at destroying $10 of the company's property to flex his authority.) – Hot Licks Feb 12 at 13:00
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    @HotLicks One of the legends surrounding Henry Royce (the engineer who had Charlie Rolls as a business partner) was more extreme. In the days when apprenticed craftsmen were expected to buy and own all their own hand tools, if Royce found someone on the shop floor using an adjustable wrench, he disposed of it by throwing it through the factory window into a nearby river. The user was dismissed on the spot with no reference, and the cost of mending the broken window was deducted from his final wage packet. But he did make some pretty good cars... – alephzero Feb 12 at 13:24
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    @Fattie - And a crap comment is just crap. – Hot Licks Feb 12 at 18:16

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