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I came across this in an EFL text book, in an exercise that required the student to link a phrasal verb with the correct object, and it struck me as not at all obvious.

The most common usage of 'out' and 'put out' is connected to moving something.

Wikitionary suggests that it is connected with actively making something "go out" or die.

'Extinguish' also uses the 'ex' or 'out' adverb. Are we moving the 'life' of the fire out of its material location? Like we 'put some creature out of her/his misery'?

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  • It is the sense suggested by Wiktionary, “die”.
    – user 66974
    Nov 4, 2020 at 9:56
  • There are many definitions of out, one of which is 'no longer burning'. Nov 4, 2020 at 9:56
  • Many phrasal verbs are idiomatic, and often not "obvious". Nov 4, 2020 at 16:07
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    Only a guess (I can't find anything beyond what you suggest) but perhaps the light being snuffed out with a candle say was involved more heavily than say a housefire. But certainly the 'flame ~ life' metaphor is surely in play. Nov 4, 2020 at 16:40
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    @EdwinAshworth Ms Bunting is quite right though, there are different meanings of "put out". For example "Last night I put out my wife, the cat and the light before I went to bed"
    – BoldBen
    Nov 4, 2020 at 20:52

3 Answers 3

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Historically, the proximate origin of 'to put out' in the transitive sense of "extinguish (something burning, or giving off light); to douse; to turn off (an electric light)" appears to be natural development of the somewhat earlier, related but now obsolete (according to OED) transitive sense, "to put an end to; to destroy, abolish, obliterate" (definitions of 'to put out' from OED, 7b and 7a).

OED supplies an early attestation for the "put an end to" sense (7a) from sometime before 1398:

His [sc. goottes] galle putteþ oute [L. depellitur] dymnesse of yhen.

(My translation: His [scilicet buck goat] gall puts out dimness of eyes.)

J. Trevisa tr. Bartholomaeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum (BL Add.) f. 277.

Although I was unable to find an online copy of the Trevisa translation cited in OED, I did find a later translation, published in 1582, with this statement (see p. 388, scan p. 710, right, mid-column):

His [Goat bucke] gall cleereth the sight, and fretteth awaye the webbes of the eyen....

(My translation: His [male goat] gall clears the sight, and destroys ["fretteth"] the clouding ["webbes"] of the eyes.)

The earliest attestation given in OED for 'put out' in the sense (7b) of "extinguish, douse [something glowing]" is from sometime before 1500, with a probable composition date sometime before 1450:

But ofte sithe the tyraunt, that is, the devel, putteth out the fire of charitee and the watir of contriccion, and casteth it ferre a-way fro the hertes of many....

(My translation: But many a time the tyrant, that is, the devil, puts out the fire of charity and the water of contrition, and casts it far away from the hearts of many....)

From The Early English Versions of the Gesta Romanorum, Sidney J.H. Herrtage, London, 1879.

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  • related but now obsolete -- not so obsolete, if we're still using it today. On another track, I suspect that use of phrasal verbs is connected to poverty of vocabulary. In this case, 'extingish', 'quench' and 'snuff' are more specific alternatives.
    – simonpa71
    Nov 6, 2020 at 11:39
  • @simonpa71, yeah, I hesitated over that "obsolete", but was unable to think of a contemporary use (other than figurative) in the sense. I'll revise the answer to reflect that "obsolete" is OED's assessment.
    – JEL
    Nov 6, 2020 at 19:03
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"Out" was first recorded somewhere around the 9th century:

Paulus Orosius · Historiarum adversum paganos libri septem ·(BL Add.) (1980) i. i. 9 Seo ea Danai..wið eastan ut on þa sæ floweð þe mon hętt Euxinus.

Looking at all the examples in the OED for “out” (adv. / adj.), it has a common thread of meaning that is always relative[1] and indicating

(i) the separation of an essential quality or original state

(ii) by its movement away,

(iii) from the original position or state and

(iv) to or into

(v) a converse or contrasting position or state:

1991 R. Doyle Van (1992) 129 She showed him..how to always peel out, away from your body, so you don't stab yourself. - The original was ‘movement towards’

1981 Encounter Apr. 3/1 When he reached the house, he gave a long whistle and out Crispin came. - Crispin's original state was ‘within’

1957 Screen Printer & Display Producer July 1/1 It was never the intention of the Union to call all its members out. – The members were “in” the place of work.

1 1990 S. Jamba Patriots (1992) xxi. 182 They felt that they had been singled out as the weaklings of the group. 2 2020 Greybeard EL&U I spent the morning sorting out the good apples from the bad. The members/apples were in a group, now some are outside the group.

1841 C. Dickens Old Curiosity Shop i. xxviii. 251 Mrs. Jarley..formally invested her with a willow wand, long used by herself for pointing out the characters. The characters were in one homogeneous group/state and now individuals have been distinguished.

1994 N.Y. Times 14 Aug. iii. 1/1 A member could work one or two of those sessions, and lease out the right to trade in the others. = Away from themselves

1994 Canad. Workshop Aug. 19/2 (caption) It seemed a logical step for them to buy out the manufacturer and move the business. - To separate by purchasing

To understand “He put the fire out”, is should be understood that to put = to place in a location or state = He changed the state of the fire from being “in” (i.e. in the state of combustion) to being out.

[1]In the same way that "Good" indicates a preferable quality only by its contrast with "bad" (or similar words), so "out" exists as having a meaning only in its contrast to "in".

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    My ancient relatives from the Scottish Borders would ask if the fire was in. I'm surprised to see that usage here. May I ask whether you found it in a dictionary or have actually heard it somewhere? Nov 6, 2020 at 20:14
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    @OldBrixtonian I didn't even bother looking in a dictionary. I'm not Scottish nor as old as your ancestors but I have heard and used "in" in relation to a fire. It may be something from the East Midlands... It tends to be used as a synonym of ignited or "lit".
    – Greybeard
    Nov 6, 2020 at 22:59
  • I've never heard it in London, but then people don't have fires these days. Although you can let the fire go out, you can't bring it in: only keep it in once you've lit it. And I don't think you can ask someone to get the fire in. Hmm. Interesting. Nov 7, 2020 at 2:11
  • there must have been a bit of dialectal confusion about in and on. I know it as variant prefixiation in German and today ein- (stymologically in-) and an-schalten (to switch on) are synonymous. Neither makes sense for a fire, so it bears noting that ignite << *h₁n̥gʷnís has so far no competing reflex in Germanic (afaict). It would be formally quite difficult, but actually, quite simple to claim that in "hot" was from the same root
    – vectory
    Nov 10, 2020 at 9:01
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Possibly the expression arose from some of the same etymological origins of the verb extinguish. 'Ex' meaning 'out', and subsequent parts from ancient PIE (proto-Indo-European language) meaning to prick.

extinguish (v.) "to put out, quench, stifle," 1540s, from Latin extinguere/exstinguere "quench, put out (what is burning); wipe out, obliterate," from ex "out" (see ex-) + stinguere "quench," apparently an evolved sense from PIE *steig- "to prick, stick, pierce" (see stick (v.)). But see distinguish (v.). Related: Extinguished; extinguishing.

The sense of motion of 'putting out' could simply have arisen naturally somewhat from the motion of poking the fire until it goes out. Since long ago they might not have easy access to water to pour over a fire.

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