Keep his feet to the fire

2012-05-15 14:31



Keep his feet to the fire

Reader question:

Please explain “keep his feet to the fire” in the following sentence: It’s up to voters to keep his feet to the fire and not give him an easy time.

My comments:

Once elected, that is, as the speaker seems to be talking about someone seeking public office.

People who seek public office tend to forget their campaign promises once they get elected. “Forget” is a nice way of putting it, I know. Perhaps they simply couldn’t do what they promised. Newly elected French President Francois Hollande, for example, promised to slap a 75% tax rate on people with an annual income of more than 1 million euros. That’s awful hard to do if you ask me, as it is practically declaring war on millionaires.

Downright impossible, as a matter of fact, if plain truth is to be told.

But, on the other hand, voters tend to forget about their political leader’s mission, too. Once the politician they support wins an election, they feel as though they themselves have won and will feel really good about themselves ever after, forgetting why they have voted for their leader in the first place.

And so, therefore, the speaker here says voters should maintain the pressure on their elected public official all the time, making sure he does not forget his campaign promises.

In other words, voters need to “keep his feet to the fire” - they should keep torturing him by keep holding his feet to the flames of fire.

A terrible analogy to be sure, but this expression, “to hold someone’s feet to the fire”, actually was once a torture technique used to force confessions, a technique that is said to have been practised during the middle ages, i.e. the dark ages.

Dark ages – so called because humanity has hence moved forward and seen the light, so to speak. Today, people generally regard all forms of torture as beneath human. The CIA, among others, still uses torture but that is an exception to the rule.

In short, nobody literally hold anyone’s feet to the fire any more. Therefore, whenever you see these words, you know people are speaking idiomatically. They’re merely saying they want to keep up the pressure and not relax until they get the results they’re seeking.

In France, if Hollande were somehow able to make his 75 percent tax rate a reality, that would be no less an achievement than the French Revolution – call it the Hollande Revolution,.

No torture techniques, of course, but it is up to the French voters to constantly keep Hollande’s feet to the fire, asking every week, for instance, how he is doing with his campaign promises.

Alright, here are a few media examples of people whose feet are held to the fire:

1. The Obama administration should hold Iran’s “feet to the fire” for the alleged plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said on Wednesday.

U.S. officials have said there could be a push for a new round of sanctions on Iran for its efforts to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir on U.S. soil.

Boehner is the top Republican in Congress.

- Boehner: U.S. should hold Iran's feet to the fire, Reuters, October 12, 2011.

2. Gov. Paul LePage said Thursday that the state government remains too big and too expensive, and part of the problem is the state work force.

“The problem is, middle management of the state is about as corrupt as can be,” he said.

LePage made the comments during a town hall meeting at Nokomis Regional High School. A questioner asked why there are so many fees to get a cosmetology license in the state. The governor said it’s because lawmakers, through the years, have had to find more ways to pay for larger government.

While he can control appointed state workers, such as his commissioners, LePage said he has little power over protected workers in middle management or unionized state employees.

He told the audience of about 50 people that Republicans have made progress in the last two years, but voters must be careful about the decisions they make in November’s legislative elections.

“I urge everyone to talk to their candidates,” he said. “Keep their feet to the fire. Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, we need to get the work done in Augusta.”

Governor points to ‘corrupt’ workers,, April 27, 2012.

3. Even though the waiting was frustrating, President Barack Obama’s announcement today that he fully supports marriage equality for gay and lesbian Americans is historic. It will certainly go down in record books with events like Stonewall as an important milestone in the equal-rights movement. Having a President, especially this President, take a strong moral stand in favor of rights for gays will help the country complete its own evolution on the issue and lead to a day where, once again, our understanding of American freedom will have been expanded.

Clearly, until today, the President had been making a political calculation—one that had outlived its usefulness. In some ways, it’s amazing that he was able to maintain a not-yes-but-not-no position for as long as he did. While it was a useful electoral strategy, changes in public opinion and in the culture have created a new reality. Obama’s political advisers badly underestimated the extent to which the marriage issue would remain at the forefront of the national discussion—and the determination of those of us who work to keep it there.

So while this is an important moment in civil-rights history, it is also an important moment in political history—in which the lesson, for the gay community and, perhaps, for anyone advocating for change, is that words are important, but we have to insist on action from our friends.

For a long time, Democrats have taken the gay vote for granted. Political consultants tell Democrats that gay and lesbian voters have nowhere else to go, and thus, in effect, can be counted on, so long as politicians pay lip service to the issue. But that is old thinking, out of touch with the new reality of the gay-rights movement. While I know that most gays and lesbians would have supported President Obama, both with their votes and with their financial contributions, no matter what he did on the issue of marriage equality, we were also not going to take “no” for an answer on the most important civil-rights issue of our day. That meant holding the President’s feet to the fire—first on the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and then on marriage equality.

- Gay Marriage: Why Obama Couldn’t Wait,, May 9, 2012.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


Last time I checked

Look the other way

Heads I win, tails you lose

Ripple effect

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑陈丹妮)



















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