'Playing with Fire': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on September 28, 2023

Where does the expression 'playing with fire' come from, and what does it mean? If you'd like to know, you're in the right place. This article will answer those questions and more.

The short version is:

  • 'Playing with fire' is an idiom you use to describe someone taking irresponsible action that could lead to trouble for everyone involved.

What Does 'Playing With Fire' Mean?

When you play with fire, it means you are taking a risk. Your actions are either dangerous, irresponsible, or impulsive and will most likely lead to harm and many problems.

If you conjure up an image in your mind of someone literally playing with fire, you'll quickly realize that this behavior has the potential for catastrophe, and the saying will make sense.

Say, for example, that your colleague has been arriving late for work quite often, and you want to let them know that this habit could lead to trouble (for instance, getting fired).

You might say:

Watch out dude, you're playing with fire here. You really need this job.

This phrase is an idiom, which means you can't interpret the meaning based on the individual words; the sentence only makes sense as a whole.

  • 'Playing with fire' is actually a shortened version of the full idiom, of which there are several versions.

Here are three of the most common ones:

  • He who plays with fire may become its victim.
  • He who plays with fire may get burned.
  • He who plays with fire will perish by it.

Where Does 'Playing With Fire' Come From?

The first recorded use of this idiom was at some point in the 1600s, but experts believe it was probably used long before then. Many sources attribute it to a Chinese proverb, the original version of which would be:



But the exact source is uncertain. Most sources seem to agree that it dates back to the Chinese Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.).

Zuǒ Qiūmíng

The Chinese philosopher Zuǒ Qiūmíng wrote the highly influential history book Commentary of Zuo in the late 4th century B.C. The following passage makes mention of the idea of playing with fire:

Fighting a war is like playing with fire. If it is not stopped in time, the army can bring trouble on itself.

Unless an earlier use of the expression can be found, it could be deduced that Qiūmíng coined the phrase, making it more than 25 centuries old!

Around the same period, it was said of the Duke Zhouyu of the State of Wei:

He indulges in wars and brings his people much disaster. He won't get their support. And he's capricious, so few of his close friends follow him. He will never achieve his ambition. Moreover, war is like fire. If one launches wars endlessly without restraint, he'll eventually burn himself.

Examples in Sentences

Now that we've covered the meaning and origin of this phrase, let's look at some examples of it used in sentences. Remember that it contains a verb ('playing'), which means it can be adapted and used in different tenses and forms. 'Playing with fire' is the present participle form, but you could also use the present simple 'play with fire' and the past simple 'played with fire.'

You're playing with fire if you run at the swimming pool.

Sally says that she isn't addicted but I think she's playing with fire.

You people are playing with fire if you think you can get away with dodging taxes.

She played with fire by leaving early every day

I warned you not to taunt him, but you wanted to play with fire.

If you play with fire you could end up in hospital

Be careful, you're playing with fire getting involved with a gang member.

He's playing with fire by staying up all night.

Are you sure you want to date your friend's ex? Aren't you playing with fire?

Skating without protection pads is playing with fire!

Other Ways to Say 'Playing With Fire'

Did you know there are plenty of other ways to say someone is doing something risky? Here are just some of the other phrases that are synonymous with this idiom.

Many of these are idioms in their own right:

  • walking on thin ice
  • go out on a limb
  • put it on the line
  • stick your neck out
  • tempt fate
  • swimming with sharks
  • take a risk
  • brash
  • careless
  • foolhardy
  • foolish
  • rash
  • reckless

Concluding Thoughts

So there you have it; 'playing with fire' means taking a chance, doing something that could end in tragedy or drama. Think carefully before you play with fire: Is the risk worth it?

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!  

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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