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Friday, July 10, 2015

Light my fire (please don't)

Forests are burning across Western Canada. They do this every summer (we have a heck of a lot of forest), so every year we hear a lot about them on the news. 

For a few years now, I've been intrigued by what we call these fires. It seems to me that in my youth they were always called "forest fires", but nowadays they are "wildfires". I decided to check whether my intuition was correct, and this is what I found by searching for each term in the archives of The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, two of our major newspapers.

1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 2014*
Forest fires 44 130 56 65 47 210
Wild fires/
12 0 15 59 36 220

*The 2014 numbers reflect a search in all of Canada's major dailies and weeklies, not a disastrous increase in fires. I searched only the plural form to remove any metaphorical usages of "wildfire". "Wildfire" is much more frequent as a spelling than "wild fire".

It would seem that my intuition that "wildfire" is gaining on "forest fire" is correct. My typically Canadian kneejerk reaction was to blame this on American influence, a result of hearing reports of annual "wildfires" in California, where what is burning is usually grass or brush rather than forest. But really, I have no explanation for this. Judging by the American corpus, Americans have in the past used the word "forest fire" as much as or more than "wildfire". And in fact, "wildfire" is a much older term than "forest fire", with evidence for the former dating back at least to the 1100s, whereas the latter first appeared in the 19th century.

Have you noticed this shift in Canadian usage as  well? What did you call these fires in your youth, and what do you call them now? Do you have any theories as to why we would switch to "wildfire" from "forest fire"?

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  1. Perhaps it is due to Smokey The Bear. "Only YOU can prevent Forest Fires". Where do bears live? In the forest of course.

    1. apparently Smokey himself has also been using "wildfire" since 2001!


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.