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I'm reading the as-told-to memoir, No Quittin' Sense, of a black man born and raised in East Texas circa 1895. He quotes the expression "all fire and toe".

After we left, Marthy said "She's all fire and toe, ain't she?"

What does it mean?

Thanks in advance.

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  • Could you provide some context for the idiom? As someone who's been studying Southern Black English for some years, I'm interested in further tracking this. Often, idiomatic expressions seem mysterious because of pronunciation-- the transcriber simply misunderstood what the interviewee was saying. The closest I've heard is "get up some (or "your") fire and try", as an expression of encouragement. – dmms Jun 8 '20 at 11:33
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    Please add a linked reference and the complete sentence. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 8 '20 at 11:41
  • First comment links to context. I didn't provide context because I anticipated it would trigger guesses. I appreciate good intentions, but in this case not interested in guesses. And, yes, there's misundertanding/bad transcription in as-told-to's but I'm pretty sure its not the case here. I googled around and found a few other examples of 'all fire & toe'. Otherwise, I've also been studying SBE for years. Curious to know what you consider the ultimate text. For me, it's ALL GOD"S DANGERS. – Rusty Brooklyn Jun 8 '20 at 12:10
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    As in the Canterbury tales. fyr and tow – Phil Sweet Jun 8 '20 at 22:36
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    Tow is untwisted plant fibers, often carried and used as kindling. It was produced commercially for caulking from the remains of rope making. It was often mixed with resins and tar. link boy – Phil Sweet Jun 8 '20 at 22:53
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OED reports finding 'toe' as a variant spelling of 'tow' in the 17th and 18th centuries. The two words are also often homophones in both UK and US English.

The 'toe' in "fire and toe" from Marthy's comment in No Quittin' Sense is more likely a transcription error based on homophony than a variant spelling of 'tow': No Quittin' Sense is the "author's life story, based on tape recordings of his own narrative, and written down in book form by A. M. Holland" (description at entry for book on Internet Archive).

tow, n.1
....
2. a. The fibre of flax, hemp, or jute prepared for spinning by some process of scutching.

This 'tow' (still commonly appearing as part of the compound 'towheaded', that is, white-blond), is highly flammable, and as such the word was paired with 'fire' in now obsolete "allusive expressions ... as an example of two things that should not be brought into proximity" with the general meaning "to do or say something that may cause trouble, controversy, or upset" (OED, fire n, P4b).

Exegesis of Marthy's comment about Miss Tish ("She's all fire and toe, ain't she?") is, of course, not appropriate here; the general meaning, however, that Miss Tish is liable "to do or say something that may cause trouble, controversy, or upset", remains clear.

OED first attests the figure 'fire and tow' with a quote from a work by Chaucer composed around 1395, and the etymology of 'tow' (n.1, op. cit.) notes that the word is not known before the "last quarter of [the] 14th cent." I have not found any earlier instances. Widespread (but not common) use of the figure in fiction and newspaper reporting continues into the early 20th century.

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    Nearly all the historical examples occur in the context of cautionary allegories concerning lust, seduction, or temptation. It's usage seems to have been confined to such matters outside Texas. From OED, which I was somehow able to look at this entry, from 1592 "This were to put fire to flaxe, and to offer soft bleeding harts as sacrifice to Cupids bowe and arrowes." Fire to flax being a variant of fire to/and tow. And here's a later example from a 1918 novel Running Sands. – Phil Sweet Sep 20 '20 at 13:50
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    Getting closer in time and place - from the Hoosier Chronicles, 1858. ..."Ham, did you get the ring ? " "Yes," says I. "Oh, where is it? Give it to me." . " I havn't got it. I gave it back." She jumped to her feet like a tiger, and caught me by the shoulder, her eyes all-a-fire, and her voice hoarse, as she screamed out : " Ham Murdoch you mustn't trifle with me so much, if you do I'll kill you." I only laughed, though, and said : " Pshaw, woman, you are all fire and tow. I havn't got the ring now, but I'll get it in a day or two." – Phil Sweet Sep 20 '20 at 15:11
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    Above link - newspapers.library.in.gov/… – Phil Sweet Sep 20 '20 at 15:18
  • This is the second reference from the right general time and place that uses the idiom in the sense of bluster that can't be backed up by action. The first one was a description of a military officer in Texas during the Texas - Mexico wars who was described as all fire and tow, meaning too eager to run to the fight. He was specifically said to possess no real training or sense of military strategies, and was contrasted to a companion who was a graduate of the Military Academy and regarded as a skilled officer. There is the sense that this idiom came to refer to a dog with more bark than bite. – Phil Sweet Sep 20 '20 at 15:31
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The phrase is much older than I suspected:

Change of Cheare, OR A Banquet of Jests. (Anonymous 1634 fifth edition) p125

"One seeing a fellow warming his feet by a hot Sea-coale fire: My friend saith he, what doe you mean to put Fire and Toe together."

and from "Matrimonial customs, or, The various ceremonies and divers ways of celebrating weddings practised amongst all the nations in the whole world done out of French. *The Third Treatise. Of Nuptial Rites, or Ceremonies, of Marriages practised amongst Ido∣laters and Pagans.* by Louis de Gaya. (1687)

She also ordained that Women should go with naked Neck and Breasts, to the end that, exposing a Samplar of their Wares, they might the sooner allure Customers. The Men of that Country are very shy in their matching, and very fearful lest they should light upon a Crack-piece; for, to say the Truth, their Maids are generally all Fire and Toe.

From the above, and other sources, to be all fire and toe: seems to mean to be "hot-headed"; given to high emotion and dramatic action. Probably a reference to the torture of burning the feet and the agitated reaction that this caused.

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  • I found the expression in No Quittin’ Sense. After finishing it, reading your response, and considering the character “all fire and toe” is used to describe in that book, I’d say, yes, it means ‘hot-headed’. And more. It’s used for a person who tends to say forceful, judgmental things that cause discomfort. The kind of person, way back in the day, who would hold your feet to the fire. – Rusty Brooklyn Jun 16 '20 at 13:01
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I discovered a newspaper reference to the expression in 1967. The Daily Banner,Greencastle, Putnam County, 15 March 1967 - Andrew (Old Hickory) Jackson was a man all fire-and-toe, a harsh and tireless soldier and politician, a circuit judge who demanded one time that a drunken rowdy come down from a tree or “by the eternal” a bullet would find his heart.

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I could only find this one written instance - which can't be the same as that puzzling OP, since mine is spoken by a female, of a female. My guess is it's a (euphemistic?) alternative to all piss and vinegar (full of beans, lively, energetic, which Merriam-Webster euphemistically define as all spit and vinegar).

But unless anyone can show some convincing evidence to the contrary, I think so far as origin is concerned, it's a corruption / miscopying of all fire and brimstone. Here are a number of written instances of She's all fire and brimstone.


EDIT: Just found this letter dated 1834...

[Some outraged local citizens] got up some letters full of fire, and toe, and brimstone, and bloody murder...

...which arguably suggests the speaker there didn't think of toe and brimstone as being "the same word". But that doesn't mean they're not.

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  • Samphire and mistletoe? – Edwin Ashworth Jun 8 '20 at 11:51
  • I'd have been quite prepared to accept that as yet another euphemistic alternative (except Google Books doesn't have a single recorded instance of those three words occurring together, let alone preceded by all and applied to a person! :) – FumbleFingers Jun 8 '20 at 12:00
  • The interesting part of your answer is the finding of the expression "She's all fire and toe, ain't she?“ which tells me that the expression does exist, however localized in time and space. – user 66974 Jun 8 '20 at 12:33
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    @EdwinAshworth: I agree it's a bit ott to say 'the expression does exist'. But we have found three written instances - all effectively for the same "variation on a theme" (and all likely to be considerably more durable than a comment on ELU! :) – FumbleFingers Jun 8 '20 at 14:20
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    Much obliged for the heavy lifting. At this juncture, seems I should seek somebody who knows it by ear, not by eye. Gonna grab the phone and dial up East Texas. I'll report findings. Thanks again. – Rusty Brooklyn Jun 8 '20 at 15:45

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