The discovery of smoke

A Mick Stevens cartoon from the New Yorker of 4/18:

(#1) The giant black cloud of smoke, largely obscuring its discoverer, made me laugh out loud when this issue arrived last month

But I didn’t post about the cartoon because it seemed to have neither a linguistics point nor a gender & sexuality point (nor to engage with other of my passions — music, art, food, plants, animals, mathematics, men’s bodies, shapenote singing, Switzerland, my medical conditions, and so on).

Ah, man of little faith. There is almost always a linguistics point to be found; and, if I’m willing to exercise some ingenuity, a gay point too. And so it is here.

Linguistics: what do you mean by burn, Smoke Boy? What’s going on inside that ring of rocks in #1 is smoldering, no flames. According to NOAD, a kind of burning:

smolder ‘burn slowly with smoke but no flame’
But, but, NOAD also tells us:

burn ‘(of a fire) produce flames and heat while consuming a material such as coal or wood’

Whoa. There are clearly two senses of burn here (where there is flame there is heat, but not vice versa):

wide sense of burn (in the smolder definition): ‘consume by heat’

narrow sense of burn (in the burn definition): ‘consume by flame’

Wonderfully, this distinction is clearly made at the very beginning of the entry for burn in OED2, right there in wording apparently from 1888:

I. 1. a. Of fire, a furnace, or conflagration: To be in the state of activity characteristic of fire; to be in the state of combustion. Sometimes the prominent notion is that of intense heat (whence also transferred of a fever, etc.): sometimes that of the visible flaming or blazing.

Gender & sexuality: firehouse heat. From the Damon Suede site (“award-winning homoerotic romance …between soft & rough…”), a presskit for Hot Head, a gay romance by Damon Suede:


Tagline: where there’s smoke there’s fire

a contemporary gay romance about love and porn in the FDNY

Logline: A straight NY firefighter devastated by 9/11 must face the fact that he’s in love with his best friend and fellow fireman when they agree to appear on an amateur porn site together.

The aphorism, from the Cambridge Dictionary site, in an entry for where there’s smoke there’s fire:

US saying (UK there’s no smoke without fire): If unpleasant things are said about someone or something, there is probably a good reason for it: She says the accusations are not true, but where there’s smoke there’s fire.

Of course, back in the real, rather than aphoristic, world, there certainly is smoke without fire (see above). While in the Damon Suede world, the aphorism is, understood figuratively, straightforwardly true: where there is smoke (and the firefighters who confront it), there is (sexual) fire.

Plus, in the Damon Suede title Hot Head, you get a play on idiomatic hothead ‘a person who is impetuous or who easily becomes angry and violent’ (NOAD), reinterpreted as hot head, and so evoking the sexual idiom give head ‘fellate’ (fellatio being everyday sex for today’s men-inclined men) and playing on hot ‘high in temperature’ vs. hot ‘erotic, sexually arousing’.

Yes, I know, some of you were looking forward to steamy tales of firefighter fellatio, and you got still more linguistics. Like queers, linguists are everywhere.


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