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What is the meaning of this quote by Terry Pratchett?

Give a man a fire and he's warm for the day. But set fire to him and he's warm for the rest of his life.

I think I understand the first sentence. It says that if you give somebody e.g. a torch or help set a fire with a limited quantity of wood, it will burn only for a couple of hours and then it's done.

But what does "set fire to him" mean exactly?

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The way I've heard this preserves the parallelism better: "Give a man a fire and he's warm for a day. But set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life." – Martha Dec 19 '13 at 20:42
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@FumbleFingers ;D All questions here could be googled and the displayed results would be links to non-ell.stackexchange.com questions. Think about it, Socrates ;) – Derfder Dec 19 '13 at 21:43
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@Fumble - I think a question like this is on topic. I can remember international friends of mine spending much thought trying to understanding clever quips and jokes like, "Let's make like a bakery truck and haul buns," or, "That cake is screaming my name." Here on ELL, I say give learners the benefit of the doubt. "Set fire to him" could easily be interpreted as "set a fire down near him," leading to confusion. Your link works great, but this one shows we can "set" many things: a fire, a table, the stage, the clock, a price, or our face toward Jerusalem. – J.R. Dec 19 '13 at 22:41
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(cont.) I've said this before: just because one person can find a link easily doesn't mean that link would be easy for everyone to find. Sometimes there's an art to parsing, and it isn't always easy for the non-native. In this case, both set and fire have many meanings, and it may not be crystal clear they should be looked up as a single unit, not two separate words. I think many Jack Handy quotes would get the native speaker laughing in no time, but a non-native could spend much time puzzling over the humor. "The face of a child can say it all, especially the mouth part of the face." – J.R. Dec 19 '13 at 22:51
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Yes, if the O.P. had thought to do that specific search, the answer could have been easily found. However, in my opinion, not doing that specific search does not imply frivolity, and to aver otherwise strikes me as Monday morning quarterbacking. – J.R. Dec 20 '13 at 21:38
up vote 31 down vote accepted

This is a classic example of "morbid humor".

"Set fire to X" means "cause X to start burning". So, if you set fire to a man, you are burning him, and he will most likely die in very short order.

It's a play on the old saying "give a man a fish and you've fed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you've fed him for the rest of his life."

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Set a man on fire means literally, to light a man on fire and cause him to burn. and he's going to be warm until he dies from the burning. As such, he'll be warm for the rest of his life.

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One possible interpretation for "Set a man on fire" here could be "ignite a person's passion."

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@Chenmunka The accepted answer doesn’t acknowledge this undercurrent, though, which I think is part of the humor. Consider this more sincere quote from Arnold H. Glasow: “Success isn't a result of spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire.” – Tyler James Young Jul 17 '14 at 19:55

In the phrase "set him on fire", the author Sir Terry Pratchett is referring to literally setting the man on fire. Not to inspire him, but to hold a flame to him until his clothing ignites. Maybe dousing him with gasoline or something like that first. He's talking about actually incinerating the person.

And by "he's warm for the rest of his life", the author means "until he burns to death."

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It's best to avoid repeating the same explanations others have given a long time ago. – Nathan Tuggy Apr 3 at 3:21

I see a deeper meaning. I see it in light of relationships.

"Give a man a fire and he's warm for the day."

  • I see giving fire as giving someone a pat on the back or praise. They spend the rest of that day happy about their achievement and that they pleased someone else, but the feeling doesn't last that long.

"But set fire to him and he's warm for the rest of his life."

  • To set man on fire is to push them to be all that they can be. Give them confidence that they can make their dreams come true. Be their support through the good and bad time of achieving their goals in life.

Overall, I see these two standpoints as how people handle relationships. It is the difference between being husband & wife and partners. Husband & wife will fend for themselves while standing next to each other, but partners will work together to defend and fight for one another.

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Well, you could use the phrase in such a way, but it's not what the speaker meant. – Jay Apr 30 '15 at 17:40
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What you're overlooking in those alternatives is the context of the original quote, which is a satire on religious inquisitions. 'Jingo' by Terry Pratchett. – jamesqf Apr 30 '15 at 18:10

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