Dear Abby ventures into the realm of language today, something that rarely goes well:

DEAR ABBY: Does a house “burn up” or “burn down”?

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!


  1. I use the OED1 sense of “burn down” when talking about cooking and heating fires. For example, “it’s way too hot to put that meat on, wait until it’s burned down a bit”.
    For a house, the use of “burn up” seems weird to me, although if I just accept it at face value then it’s equivalent to “burn down”.
    In the context of utility fires, “burn down” means to lower in temperature or strength, “burn up” means to use up some specific fuel, and “burn out” means to exhaust all fuel and stop burning. I think “burn in” doesn’t apply to fires, and other prepositions don’t seem to form phrasal verbs.

  2. mollymooly says

    “burn up” has the less distant metaphorical sense “overheat” as in “open a window, I’m burning up in here”. Are there any metaphorical extensions of “burn down”? I don’t think the Talking Heads song “Burning Down the House” counts.

  3. And let’s not neglect “burn through,” which Google says that radar can do to external interference, a hole can do to a weld, or a blog can do to daddy’s money.

  4. I would never say a house ‘burned up’. A piece of paper ‘burns up’, not a house. I think the reason a house ‘burns down’ is through association with ‘falls down’, ‘crumbles down’, ‘is knocked down’, etc. I mean, we actually say ‘the house burnt down to the ground‘. Ie. the literal direction, down, is present. The DA distinction is obviously nonsense for a general speaker, although it is perfectly possible that it holds within a particular language community such as the LA Fire Dept.

  5. rootlesscosmo says

    “Burn down” also has the metaphorical sense “exhaust through overuse,” as “That doctor used to write morphine prescriptions but too many junkies found out about him and burned him down.” (W.S. Burroughs, “Junkie,” paraphrased from memory.)

  6. Candles burn down to their wicks rather than burning up to them, do they not, presumably a current sense of the 1888 becoming feeble for want of fuel.

  7. Nice. Care to offer a hint of how the tune goes?

  8. Candles and houses burn down. In my car, however, I burn up fuel, and in my body, I burn up fat.

  9. (While it’s not specific to the phrase…) This reminds me of the first year I was taking (very informal “kitchen”-) Gaelic: I teased my instructor that I suspected that all the “extra” letters in Gaelic were some medieval Celtic scribe’s gleeful vendetta in setting the phonetics up deliberately to confound and discombobulate the arrant Anglophone scholar…?! With a wry grin he quite turned the tables on me by pointing out that English shouldn’t be casting any stones; after all, what other language requires you to “chop down” a tree before you can “chop it up”! In that vein…might I suggest that one would have to “burn (something) down” in order to “burn (it) up”?
    (Oh, BTW, nice to find this site and begin to meet you all. Have a good one! –Packrat.)

  10. Both these phrases clearly have a number of different usages (e.g. “burn down” to refer to the dwindling-down of a cooking fire), but it seems to me that in the most common usage of “burn up”, it means simply to burn completely — a half burned piece of paper has burned, but one that has burned to ashes has burned up. “Burned down” in the context of a house fire has much the same meaning, but is used only for structures. Perhaps “burned up” sounds odd applied to a house fire simply because the more specific term is available.

  11. Yes! Yes! Yes! To “burn down” is to reduce, and “burn up” is to consume (whatever has been “burned down”) completely…well, at least that’s how it’s used, in this context, eh?

  12. When I was learning English, it was explained to me that the “up” which follows verbs indicates thoroughness or completion, and is often used to understate a vague urgency or importance. (Of course, it has other idiomatic usages, too.)
    This is the difference between “cleaning,” which I do all the time, or “cleaning up,” which I do primarily when I have guests coming over or when I am literally covered an with inexcusable amount of mud from gardening. Similarly, mothers might tell their kids to “eat up” their vegetables when they’re tired of waiting for them to finish.
    Isn’t this kind of like the Hungarian verbal prefix “meg-“? I wish someone would fully explain that one to me.

  13. I would say that, in the literal sense, “burn down” refers to something that is destroyed by fire top-to-bottom (such as a house or a candle), with only the charred bottom remaining, whereas “burn up” refers to something that is entirely consumed, such as a piece of paper. There’s no bottom to reach on the piece of paper.

  14. Ha! I think this Dear Abby is a ruse to draw linguists and other people with a bit of sense into the open. If we’re being more generous it’s an intentional joke.
    For me the image evoked by the two phrases, in the house context, is of being consumed by flames for “up” and of crumbling for “down”, but there’s very little difference. They’re certainly synonymous if it’s your house.

  15. “They’re certainly synonymous if it’s your house.” OMG, ROTFL! Indeed, Meesher, they most certainly would be! (Thanks for injecting a touch of levity–I was starting to worry…!)
    I would like to suggest that the “down” element is an actual referent to gravitational effects, however unconscious it may be. Applied (as it usually is) to the conflagratory deconstruction of structures, it may be quite a literal indicator: burning structures collapse, as their material is weakened and consumed, and the impaired remnants fall DOWN. They cannot fall UP. I would suggest that this is supported by the observation that a structure can quite properly be considered to have “burned down” even when a good deal of it’s original material mass remains unconsumed–granted, what’s left may be a ruined mess, but it’s still there. How often is it necessary to bulldoze a site to clear it of the remains of a structure referred to as “burned down”? “Burned down” doesn’t mean wholely reduced–that’s why the qualifier “to the ground” appears; it indicates a more thorough consumption/destruction of the total mass. You might actually think of [“burned down to the ground” and “burned up”] as more synonomous to each other than [“burned up” and “burned down”] are. Hmmmm…?

  16. Isn’t this kind of like the Hungarian verbal prefix “meg-“? I wish someone would fully explain that one to me.
    I can’t fully explain it to you, but it is the same sort of thing. The up in burn up, possibly along with the down in burn down, is an aspect marker (for which see the Wikipedia article Grammatical aspect). So is the Hungarian prefix meg-, as in megenni, “to eat up”. So is the prefix po- in Serbian popiti, “to drink up”. In fact the Slavic languages seem to be the ones in which aspect is marked most clearly – or at least most paradigmatically or interestingly, as any number of Russian mavens within these hallowed cyberwalls will attest. The Hungarian system of aspectual prefixes appears to be a grammatical borrowing from neighbouring Slavic languages.
    Aspect is marked in Chinese (at least in Mandarin, or Putonghua) in a way reminiscent of this up in burn up – a sort of perfective (completion-indicating) marker appended to the base verb. The common greeting Ni chi le ma? (“Have you eaten yet?”) is composed this way:
    Ni chi le ma?
    You eat [completion marker] [interrogative marker]
    As in English, and surely in many other languages, aspect is intimately and problematically bound up with tense.
    (There. How’d I go, guys?)

  17. That’s very good, and I know about aspect – Serbo-Croatian (or Bosnian, when I’m in the right mood) is my native language. But whilst learning Hungarian (and sadly, I am still in the progressive aspect of that endeavor), I found that the situation wasn’t one in which I could “think” of the Serbo-Croatian way and simply stick a “meg-” on there or not, as the situation seemed to merit.
    Unfortunately, that problem existed at the very edge of newly-acquired knowledge and I can’t think of a good situation where I was confused. Only that I was confused, quite often. When I think of a case, I will ask!

  18. “Burn out”, I believe, exists in drag racing, when a car is held stationary and the engine revved so the rear tyres spin, generating a lot of smoke (and sometimes flames). This gets the tyres hot and sticky in preparation for the run.

  19. @Paul
    Hmm. I think I’d call that a “burn-in”.

  20. When I was learning English, it was explained to me that the “up” which follows verbs indicates thoroughness or completion, and is often used to understate a vague urgency or importance.
    Yes, I think that’s what’s going on there. And I shouldn’t have said that the two phrases are synonymous, since I think “up” and “down” are doing different things, but rather that in many contexts they produce the same semantic result (with perhaps different flavoring).
    Isn’t this kind of like the Hungarian verbal prefix “meg-“? I wish someone would fully explain that one to me.
    Since Noetica has done a fine job with the actual explanation, I’ll just mention that the first Hungarian phrase I learned was Bassz meg!

  21. I think the fire department’s answer is simply a non-responsive to the actual question. The “it” refers to fires, not houses, and in that context, “up” and “down” are simply directional (the fire can burn up, down, east, west, etc.), not part of a verb+particle idiom.
    I have some commentary on this at

  22. The “it” refers to fires, not houses
    Of course, that makes perfect sense! Here‘s the direct link to Karl’s excellent discussion.

  23. David Marjanović says

    If people already mention Hungarian, I have a great excuse to wax grandiloquent about German.
    1) Niederbrennen translates literally as “burn down”, to the extent that it’s transitive as well as intransitive like in English (you can burn down a house, which burns down in the process). The past participle is usually combined with bis auf die Grundmauern, “to the fundaments”.
    2) In (roughly) Germany, “to tidy up” is aufräumen; auf and up are cognates and mean the same thing. In (even more roughly) Austria, it’s zusammenräumen, which has “together” as the prefix, implying a reduction in the volume of the room-filling heap and implying that things that belong together are put together.
    3) In at least some at least Austrian dialects, there’s a word that would be zusammenbrennen in the standard. It describes contracting into a smoldering clump, again a reduction in volume. This is additional to niederbrennen, not a replacement.
    4) Aspect is not part of grammar in German, it’s completely lexical. Witness the three stages of inebriation in the Viennese dialect(s): they’d be angesoffen (“at-“, or rather Latin ad-), zugesoffen (“closed-“), niedergesoffen (“down-“). No, wait, that’s not even aspect: you can be beginning to drink yourself under the table.
    I’m told all of the world authorities on aspect are Germans. Must be because it’s such an exotic phenomenon to them. 🙂

    Ni chi le ma?
    You eat [completion marker] [interrogative marker]

    That’s not a completion marker, harr harr. That would be easy! It’s a change-of-state marker. You look out of the window, you see it now rains, what do you say? Xiayu le — down rain change-of-state. Same tone (i. e., no tone), same character.
    (Do people really say chi instead of chifan?)

  24. That’s not a completion marker, harr harr.
    Well, I gave a simple account, for three good reasons:
    1) That’s what seemed to be called for, and the Chinese was simply to enable “triangulation” on the topic.
    2) My Chinese is seriously limited.
    3) The status of le, along with its univocality, is contested. Whole books are written on the matter, like Xiao and McEnery’s Aspect in Mandarin Chinese: a corpus-based study (2004), in which we find this:
    While Chinese is recognised as an aspect language, and aspect marking has been studied intensively in Chinese linguistics in the last three decades, there is no generally agreed account of the aspect system of this language, as different researchers define aspect in their own ways. As a consequence there is much controversy surrounding the form and function of aspect markers. This leads to the following questions:
    • Is it necessary to distinguish the verbal -le and the sentential le? Does the verbal -le function to mark the completiveness, terminativeness or simply the realisation of a situation? Can -le interact with stative situations?
    The authors’ revisionist program spans over 300 pages. You are welcome to give a lucid explication of the domain in three terse paragraphs, David. I wait with interest.
    (Do people really say chi instead of chifan?)
    They do indeed. Check your corpora, in default of which do a Google search on “Ni chi le ma”, and then searches on “Ni chi fan le ma” and “Ni chifan le ma”.
    🙂 [As they say.]

  25. Yes, I’m sure I heard “chi le ma” in Taiwan thirty years ago.

  26. Reminds me of a homophone list that has been circulating in various incarnations for ages.

    You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language where your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out, and in which an alarm goes off by going on.

    One variation of the list is here:
    Yes I have heard a slightly different variation of your mother’s “washing dishes” song. It was in around 1964 in South Dakota and the occasion was one of my first 4-H demonstrations to be given in front of my local 4-H club, which, unlike Brownies, was heavily attended by mothers. I was going to demonstrate how to wash dishes (not my idea) and one of the mothers, a farmer’s wife, suggested I sing the “washing dishes” tune as an introduction to the talk. My mother had never heard the song so the other mother sang it for me several times until I got the hang of it. There was another part of the song she tried to remember and couldn’t, but she said it wouldn’t work for the demonstration anyhow.
    The song lyrics:

    Washing dishes, washing dishes, that is all I do it seems.
    Making wishes, making wishes, while my head is full of dreams…

  27. Siganus Sutor says

    Remembering what was sung in the old days —
    But some stupid with a flare gun
    Burned the place to the ground.
    Smoke on the water, fire in the sky
    it seems to me that if a place is burnt to the ground it can only burn down, no?

  28. John Emerson says

    Long ago I remember remember reading about these usages as separable or two-part verbs. The meaning of the whole two part verb may have an apparent relationship to the meaning of the second part of the word standing along, or it might be like a dead metaphor or a fossil etymology.
    Two-part verbs overview
    List of separable two-part (phrasal) verbs.

  29. Thanks, Nijma—it’s nice to know someone else is familiar with the song. (And I think you’re right about the second line; the repetition of “making wishes” sounds convincing.)

  30. David Marjanović says

    The authors’ revisionist program spans over 300 pages. You are welcome to give a lucid explication of the domain in three terse paragraphs, David. I wait with interest.

    That’s precisely what I wrote: it’s not easy, it’s complicated.
    I have no easy way of entering Chinese characters, so I’ll do the Google search next weekend, after the congress…

  31. That’s precisely what I wrote: it’s not easy, it’s complicated.
    Ah yes. Nevertheless, le is very often properly regarded as a perfective (indeed, completive) aspect marker. At least it is “one that will do to swell a progress”.
    it seems to me that if a place is burnt to the ground it can only burn down, no?
    You raze an interesting point, cher frangin presqu’oublié à qui je dois quelques “émaux”, je crois. And remember Valéry’s altitude, which in its latinate way imports vertical extension, whether of depth or of height.
    Meanwhile, let us maintain a vigil against conflating resultative verb complements and perfective aspect markers – overlapping though these notions are, at least in English.

  32. unrelatedwaffle says

    I got the distinct impression that this was a little tongue-in-cheek, ask a stupid question, etc. on Dear Abby’s part, à la Cecil Adams.

  33. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s my mother sang a variant of the song:

    Washing dishes, washing dishes,
    That is all I do, it seems;
    Making wishes, making wishes,
    Till my head is full of dreams…
    Light the fire, and scrub the floor;
    Carry garbage out of doors,
    And after all my other chores,
    Then I go back to washing dishes.

    She often sang this song, repeatedly and vigorously, while washing dishes.

  34. Well! Googling more of the lyrics brought to light the source of the song: a 1929 operetta titled “The Sunbonnet Girl”! Here’s a link to an article about the musical, complete with song lyrics:

  35. Wow, thanks very much for that find! I wish I could ask my mother if she saw the show or just heard the song from someone.

    She often sang this song, repeatedly and vigorously, while washing dishes.

    Mine too, and I now do the same, to the amusement of my wife.

  36. I just found this:

    I was also in an operetta. I played the Mother and had a solo part about washing dishes- “washing dishes, washing dishes, that is all I do it seems- making wishes, making wishes while my head is full of dreams,” and so on. It was held in the new auditorium north of the elementary building.

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