What is the meaning and origin of ‘hang fire’?

(PV Jagannathan, Chennai)

This is an expression that has been part of the English language since the 17th century. It is mostly used to mean to keep something pending; when something ‘hangs fire’, you delay taking action on it even though it is rather important. In other words, you procrastinate. In 1981, thanks to the song ‘Hang Fire’ by the British rock group, the Rolling Stones, the expression acquired a slightly different meaning — to relax or chill. Here are a few lines from the song from their album ‘Tattoo You’: “In the sweet old country where I come from/ Nobody ever works/ Yeah, nothing gets done/ We hang fire, we hang fire.”

*Don’t be in a hurry. Let’s hang fire till the court gives its verdict.

*What do you want to do this evening? Study for next week’s test or hang fire?

In the past, the gunpowder that was used in canons and guns was rather unpredictable. When it was wet, it would not ignite at all. Even when it was dry, sometimes the powder inside the gun, instead of exploding, only smouldered — it burned slowly, resulting in a lot of smoke coming out of the gun. This made the weapon dangerous for one didn’t really know when the remaining portion of the powder would catch fire leading to an explosion. This delay in the explosion when the powder was smouldering was referred to as ‘hang fire’. Sir Walter Scott popularised the use of this expression in everyday contexts.

How is the word ‘soporific’ pronounced?

(KP George, Cochin)

The first syllable ‘sop’ rhymes with ‘hop’, ‘top’ and ‘pop’, while the ‘o’ in the second, sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘china’. The ‘I’ in the third syllable is pronounced like the ‘I’ in ‘hit’, ‘pit’ and ‘bit’, and the final ‘fic’ rhymes with ‘pick’, ‘sick’ and ‘kick’. The word is pronounced ‘sop-e-RIF-ic’ with the stress on the third syllable. It is ultimately derived from the Latin ‘sopor’ meaning ‘deep sleep or lethargy’. Nowadays, the word is mostly used to refer to things that induce sleep or drowsiness in people — it could be a medicine or drug, the motion of a train, etc.

*The summer heat was making Sunita feel soporific.

The word can also be used to mean ‘tediously boring or monotonous’.

*Pity the officials who have to listen to the Minister’s soporific speeches.

What is the difference between ‘The Principal gave a pen to each student’ and ‘The Principal gave a pen to every student’?

(S. Mythili, Coimbatore)

In most contexts, people generally use ‘each’ and ‘every’ interchangeably. Careful users of the language, however, maintain a distinction between the two. The word ‘each’ is normally used when you are thinking of the students as individuals; the focus here is on the individual members of the group. The word ‘every’, on the other hand, suggests that you are thinking of the students as a group; you are not thinking of them individually, but collectively. ‘Every’, in certain contexts, has the same meaning as ‘all’.


“When I buy a book, I read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends.” — Harry Burns