A burnt child dreads the fire.

magic dragon feeders

Senior Member
Would you answer my question? Thanks in advance.

A: A burnt child dreads the fire. (proverb)

<Q 1> Is "the fire" a generalized concept of actual fires including a cooking fire?

<Q 2> Is "the fire" a metaphor for faults or failures, and "a burnt child" for a child who has had a bad experience like that?

<Q 3> I'd like to know the reason "a burnt child", not "burnt children" is used.
I think advices or lessons are most effective when they are given to an individual person. Am I right?
  • manfy

    Senior Member
    German - Austria
    1-. Yes.
    2. No.
    3. Singular is more forceful.
    I disagree with your second answer.

    Yes, first and foremost the proverb has a literal meaning. Little children don't know what fire is and what it does if they haven't been taught by their parents.
    It looks funny or interesting to them, and it's in human nature to explore interesting things. They'll try to touch it, but as soon as they feel the intense pain they'll retract their hand - they usually remember that for the rest of their lives and will not deliberately try to touch fire again or even go near it.

    The proverb is very often also used in a metaphorical sense. For example, a teenager who's in love for the first time is usually very trusting and believes it's the love of his life and it will last forever and that everything is perfect. But if that teenager has to find out that he was just used and played with, the emotional scar might be so deep that he loses trust in people, love or relationships. He will be very careful with every new relationship. Such a behaviour can be aptly described/explained with the proverb "A burnt child fears fire."

    [correcting typos]
    Last edited:


    Senior Member
    English - Northeast US
    The entire proverb is often used as a metaphor. But within the proverb itself, fire is fire and a child is a child.


    Senior Member
    English UK
    It's not an expression I use, but I see the Free Dictionary also has it as A burnt child dreads the fire: click.


    Senior Member
    USA, English
    I was surprised to see that this is an American idiom, though the concept is familiar to me. What I was familiar with is "You don't have to tell a child not to touch a hot stove twice." : A Burnt Child Dreads The Fire Idiom American Expressions and American Idioms - What does A Burnt Child Dreads The Fire Idiom mean?
    One does not repeat a painful lesson twice.

    The corrolary is, "A wise man learns from his mistakes." (Though Dad said, "A wise man learns from other peoples' mistakes. Any idiot can learn from his own mistakes". :) )


    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    I think how much sense "the" makes might depend on when and where this expression was created.

    Nowadays (in Western society) we don't normally have a fire burning as a household "tool". But in the old days, it was common to have a fire burning for heat and cooking (if you tour a colonial village in the U.S. they will demonstrate that). So "the fire" could have been a specific reference to the standard household fire. It could be the equivalent of "A burnt child fears the stove." ("A child burnt by the stove fears the stove.")

    Not really, actually!
    I have heard it in various forms and it sounded ok to me. Wiktionary also shows the OP version.

    Many of those proverbs are hundreds of years old, so it's not surprising that you find minor variations in different regions.

    Yes, Google does show use of 'the fire', but many examples are in translation sites. I guess some people say 'the fire".


    English - England
    So "the fire" could have been a specific reference to the standard household fire.
    That's how I see it.
    I have not heard the version without the the, but, to me, it would have a different nuance. The is usually used as the metaphor is specific to one incident.

    magic dragon feeders

    Senior Member
    Thank you all.
    kentix said:
    So "the fire" could have been a specific reference to the standard household fire (the stove).

    ---I agree. This explanation is more understandable to me.
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