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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
    
I think "What does set fire to [something] mean?" is Too Basic, even for ELL. OP could easily have Googled define set fire to instead of asking here. –  FumbleFingers Dec 19 '13 at 21:31
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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

2 Answers 2

up vote 13 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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One possible interpretation for "Set a man on fire" here could be "ignite a person's passion."

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Maybe so, but that wouldn't fit with Terry Pratchett's sense of humour. The accepted answer is much more likely. –  Chenmunka Jul 17 at 18:15
    
@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 at 19:55

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