Dear Abby ventures into the realm of language today, something that rarely goes well:
DEAR ABBY: Does a house “burn up” or “burn down”?
— HOT TOPIC IN ASHEBORO, N.C.
DEAR “HOT”: It does both, depending upon where the fire starts. According to the Beverly Hills Fire Department, if a fire starts in the attic, it burns down — and if it starts on the first floor, it burns up.
Who do you turn to when you need linguistic information? Why, a fireman, of course! I have no idea whether whoever picked up the phone at the Beverly Hills Fire Department made that up on the spot because it sounded plausible or actually differentiates the phrases in that way, and if the latter whether it’s personal, institutional, or professional use (do other firemen make the distinction?), but I do know that it’s not general usage. In current English, burn up and burn down are essentially synonymous when used literally (though of course burn up has a metaphorical sense of ‘irritate, annoy’). Back in 1888, when the Bra-Byzen fascicle of the OED saw the light of publication, things were different; to burn down was “to burn until it becomes feeble from want of fuel,” whereas to burn up was “to take strong hold of the combustible material, get fairly alight.” I can’t find such a distinction in my modern dictionaries, however, and I’m pretty sure it has long passed out of use. I’m not saying the two phrases are used identically, mind you—that’s always a perilous assumption to make—just that the distinction claimed by Dear Abby is incorrect.
And now, with the thin excuse that my late mother loved reading Dear Abby, I present a song she used to sing, which she doubtless got from her mother (in 1920s Iowa); since I can’t find any trace of it on the internet, I want to put it out there so it won’t vanish from human memory:
Washing dishes, washing dishes,
That is all I do, it seems;
Washing dishes, making wishes,
And my head is full of dreams…
Light the fire, and scrub the floor;
Put the ashes out the door,
And after all my other chores,
Then I go back to washing dishes!
(Needless to say, if you’re familiar with this or a variant, I’d love to hear about it.)
Update (Nov. 2015). Thanks to Gordon’s comment (over seven years after the post), I now know the song is from the 1929 musical The Sunbonnet Girl (the lyrics are quoted here). Thanks, Gordon!