Hold someone’s feet to the fire is an idiom that has been in use for hundreds of years. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, chin up, on the ball, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the idiom hold someone’s feet to the fire, where it came from, and some examples of its use in sentences.
To hold someone’s feet to the fire means to pressure someone to do something, to hold someone accountable, to force someone to comply. The idiom hold someone’s feet to the fire is derived from the trial by ordeal used by the Inquisition during Medieval times. Quite literally, one’s feet were held to a fire or one was forced to walk barefoot over hot coals in order to extract a confession of wrongdoing. The assumption was that if someone were innocent, God would protect him or her from harm in a miraculous fashion. Today, the term hold someone’s feet to the fire is often used in situations where someone is reluctant to take responsibility or perform a necessary action. Related expressions are holds someone’s feet to the fire, held someone’s feet to the fire, holding someone’s feet to the fire.
That said, I do worry that if Biden becomes president he will compromise too easily; progressives will have to hold his feet to the fire, and make sure that incrementalism doesn’t turn into preemptive surrender. (The Antelope Valley Press)
Wallace astutely and meticulously interviewed Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and held his feet to the fire on the question of whether the president lied about the two hush-money felonies that authorities in the Southern District of New York have said that Trump directed. (USA Today)
The clearest one was on Tuesday when Warren called Bloomberg an “egomaniac” on Twitter and challenged her opponents to hold his feet to the fire. (The Seattle Times)