‘a fool at one end and a fire at the other’: meaning and history

The phrases a fool at one end and (a) fire at the other and (a) fire at one end and a fool at the other are satirical descriptions of a cigar or of a cigarette.

They are probably patterned on satirical phrases describing a fishing rod—the earliest occurrences of which being from A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London: Printed for S. Hooper, 1788), by the English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-1791):

Fool. A fool at the end of a stick; a fool at one end, and a maggot at the other: gibes on an angler.

One of those phrases was attributed to the Irish satirist, poet and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) in the review of The Angler; a didactic Poem, by Charles Clifford—review published in The Monthly Review; or Literary Journal (London: Printed by Straban and Preston; and sold by T. Becket) of April 1805:

We cannot wholly approve of the sport; and we are even inclined to call in the aid of Swift’s well-known satirical description of it, as exhibiting only “a stick and a string, with a worm at one end and a fool at the other.”

The earliest occurrence of the phrase (a) fire at one end and a fool at the other that I have found is from the Bangor Courier (Bangor, Maine) of Tuesday 26th January 1841:

'fire at one end and a fool at the other' - Bangor Courier (Bangor, Maine) - 26 January 1841

A very curious phenomenon is now-a days frequently seen in our streets. It is a cigar with fire at one end and a fool at the other.

The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase (a) fire at one end and a fool at the other that I have found is from A True Picture, an article in which one H. O. Sheldon criticised the system of education—article published in the Vermont Telegraph (Brandon, Vermont) of Wednesday 19th January 1842 (the author specifies that the phrase was already in common usage):

Is it any wonder that children hate their books, love theatres and learn vice, or that we see young men practice the learned, polite, genteel, healthy, fashionable, and useful accomplishment of munching a delicious Indian weed; or that clouds of grateful incense rise to perfume the air, from what the newspapers term “a roll, with fire at one end, and a fool at the other?”

The earliest occurrence of the phrase a fool at one end and (a) fire at the other that I have found is from the description of one of species of cows (i.e., of humans) in Wonderful Cows, published in the Wisconsin tribune (Mineral Point, Wisconsin) of Thursday 14th November 1850—this particular species (i.e., the cigar smoker) is

described as having either “a fool at one end and fire at the other,” or a “calf” that won’t “suck” till he bites off a piece of the teat, when, instead of swallowing the dark looking and absolutely poisonous milk, which he extracts in great quantities, squirts it forth upon his best friends, to the annoyance of even the dogs who hang their tails and run.

The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase a fool at one end and (a) fire at the other that I have found is from Coat, No. 1. “If it Fits you put it on.”, by ‘Scaurus’, published in the Culturist and Gazette (Pittsfield, Massachusetts) of Wednesday 8th January 1851:

I met a thing having two legs, and all the outward semblance of a man. He was well dressed, and seemed to think himself—somebody! He had a cigar in his mouth,—an article that usually “has a fool at one end, and a little fire at the other.” He was smoking, too […].

The phrase then occurs in Grant, the Smoker, a portrait of Ulysses Simpson Grant (Hiram Ulysses Grant – 1822-1885), American general and 18th President of the United States (1869-1877)—portrait published in Pomeroy’s Democrat (New York City, N.Y.) of Wednesday 31st August 1870:

But, about the cigars! Grant does smoke. He smokes right lively. From morning till night he always can be found with a cigar in his mouth—with a fool at one end and a little fire at the other.

The following is from the column Yorick’s Drawer, in the Portland Daily Press (Portland, Maine) of Saturday 18th January 1879:

—An anonymous correspondent wants to know if Yorick ever heard of the definition of a cigar; “something with a fool at one end and a fire at the other.” Yes, Yorick has, and thinks the definition will apply to the anonymous correspondent’s letter—for the letter is burned.

The retort to (a) fire at one end and a fool at the other and to a fool at one end and (a) fire at the other is but there’s good tobacco in between—as exemplified by the following from The Lafitte Cut-Off, the journal of Abbeville High School, published in the Abbeville Meridional (Abbeville, Louisiana) of Saturday 17th January 1925:

Old Gent—Boy, did you know that a cigarette, properly defined, is “fire at one end and a fool at the other”?
Young Ruffian—Yeah, I know but there’s good tobacco in between.
—Carolina Buccaneer.

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