Grammar

Fireman or Firefighter? Some Think There’s a Big Difference!

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Do you think there’s a difference between the terms fireman or firefighter? I didn’t when I was a kid, but that seems to have changed.

When you see that big fire engine go blaring by, do you think of a fireman or firefighter?

You may argue that they’re one in the same. For many, they are.

But an alternate definition for one of those terms leads some to believe only one term is the correct choice for those who fight fires.

I’m not sure when the mood changed. But it seems like I became aware of the distinction sometime in the 1990s.

When I was a kid, many little boys would say they wanted to be a fireman. That was the term everyone used.

One of my favorite shows as a kid was Jack Webb’s Emergency. That show followed the adventures of Paramedics Gage and DeSoto at Los Angeles Fire Department’s Station 51 Rescue Squad.

I’m pretty sure they used fireman. I know in the movie The Towering Inferno, they referred to firemen.

But I became aware sometime later that firefighter was the preferred term.

It’s likely not because of the first reason you might assume.

You could certainly say fireman sounds like a sexist term. So you might assume the main objection to the term — and the reason for a preference of firefighter was all about gender.

But the primary reason I’ve heard has nothing to do with gender.

In fact, it has to do with furnaces!

I found a reference to the distinction in a forum for members of the firefighting profession. Several responded to a question of whether they call themselves a fireman or firefighter.

One, who said he uses the term firefighter, said, “Firemen take care of boilers in HVAC plants!”

Another agreed, saying, “I fight fires, I don’t shovel coal on a locomotive.”

Some — but clearly not all — firefighters prefer that term because they see a fireman as someone who stokes furnaces or takes care of boilers.

There are the “traditionalists” out there, as with all things, who grew up with the fireman term and prefer that option.

I choose firefighter because I realize there’s a sensitivity to fireman. If someone is going to complain about one or the other, it’s always to complain about the use of fireman. I’ve never received one complaint about the use of firefighter.

By the way, if you follow a style guide, you should check what that resource has to say. I largely follow AP Style here and I definitely follow it at the real job.

AP Style makes it clear that firefighter is the preferred term for them as well.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.