Fan the Flames

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Used metaphorically since the 1700's, in phrases such as "fan the flames of discontent," "fan the flames of insurrection," or "fan the flames of love."

Meaning

To fan the flames is to cause an emotion, especially a negative one, to become stronger or to incite someone to increase negative activities by causing them to become more aggravated. To aggravate the tension in a situation or to make a situation more extreme.

Fanning the flames of imperialism illustration

This illustration from 1900 plays on the idiom "fan the flames."
It shows William Jennning Bryan holding a very large bellows
labelled "Byranism," which he used to fan the flames of a tiny
campfire labelled "Imperialism". The figure on the right is
Carl Schhurz and on the right is Adlai Stevenson. The idea
is that the "fire won't take" no matter how hard Bryan fans it.

Fanning the flames of imperialism illustration

This illustration from 1900 plays on the idiom "fan the flames."
It shows William Jennning Bryan holding a very large bellows
labelled "Byranism," which he used to fan the flames of a tiny
campfire labelled "Imperialism". The figure on the right is
Carl Schhurz and on the right is Adlai Stevenson. The idea
is that the "fire won't take" no matter how hard Bryan fans it.

Usage

"Racists organizations often fan the flame of hatred through propaganda."

"The organization fanned the flames of revolution, inciting followers to war."

"He was a provocative speaker who fanned the fans of the crowd's anger."

Origin

The literal meaning of fanning flames is to blow air onto a fire so as to increase the available oxygen to the fire, thus causing the flames to become higher and the fire more intense. The meaning of this idiom can be seen in the literal meaning. Thus, fire can be seen as the negative emotion such as hatred or anger, and fanning can be seen as causing these emotions to increase in intensity.

There are many idioms in the English language that are related to various aspects of fire.

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