'Where There's Smoke, There's Fire': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on September 21, 2023

If you've ever heard the expression 'where there's smoke, there's fire,' you might have wondered what it means. In this article, you'll learn both the meaning and origin of this idiom and how to use it.

But first, here's the short version:

  • To say 'where there's smoke, there's fire,' is to say the signs shouldn't be ignored because if it looks like something is happening, then it probably is.

What Does 'Where There's Smoke, There's Fire' Mean?

This expression is an idiom, which means that it shouldn't be interpreted in the literal sense. However, the literal sense of this sentence is a good indication of the intended figurative purpose, too.

Think about it: What is smoke to fire? It's a signal. If you see smoke, chances are there's a fire somewhere, so it's a good idea to become alarmed. The same goes for the idiom; if someone says 'where there's smoke, there's fire,' they mean there are signs that something is happening—usually something bad.

The dictionary defines it like this:

If someone says where there's smoke there's fire, they mean that there are rumors or signs that something is true so it must be at least partly true. 

Imagine, for instance, that your friend suddenly stopped returning your calls and that this went on for a prolonged period. So you visit her at home and find out that she was recently fired from her job and is pretty depressed about it.

You might say:

I knew something was wrong when Abby stopped returning my calls. Where there's smoke there's fire. 

You might also hear people say, 'there's no fire without smoke,' or 'if there's smoke, there's fire.' which means the same thing. You can also maintain the core structure of the idiom while using adverbs like "usually," "generally," "often," "typically," or "commonly" to convey a similar meaning with slight variations in intensity or probability.

For example:

  • Where there's smoke, there's usually fire.
  • If there's smoke, there's often fire.
  • Where there's smoke, there's generally fire.

Where Does 'Where There's Smoke, There's Fire' Come From?

The origin of this idiom is not definitively known, but it has been in use for centuries and appears in various forms in different cultures. It exists in other languages, too, including Italian, French, German, and Spanish.

It is worth noting that the concept of visible smoke indicating an underlying fire is a universal and intuitive observation that likely predates written records.

Latin and Greek Influence

The idiom is sometimes attributed to Latin and Greek writings. The Roman playwright Plautus (c. 254–184 BCE) is often mentioned in connection with similar expressions. In Latin, the following saying means 'where there's smoke, there's fire:'

ubi fumus, ibi ignis

However, this phrase's specific historical origin or authorship is not well-documented. It may have been a common saying in Roman times, reflecting the universal understanding of the relationship between smoke and fire.

Similarly, in Greek, the following phrase conveys a similar idea:

ποῦ καπνός, ποῦ πῦρ (pou kapnos, pou pyr)

Like the Latin version, this phrase's exact historical origins and authors are not easily traceable, as it is more of a proverbial observation.

Historical Usage in English

The idiom has been used in English since at least the 16th century. It can be found in various forms in early English literature and writings.

For example, it appeared in John Heywood's Proverbs (1546):

There is no fyre without smoke.

While the core expression remains consistent, there have been variations and adaptations of the idiom in different contexts and by different authors. For instance, "where there's a spark, there's a flame" conveys a similar idea, emphasizing that small signs can lead to more significant issues.

Examples in Sentences

Now that we've covered this idiom's meaning and possible origins, let's look at some example sentences.

The mysterious disappearance of funds from the organization's account raised suspicions, and the board decided that if there's smoke, there's fire, and they needed to investigate.

It's a historical fact that where there's smoke there's often fire.

His sudden change in behavior was a clear sign that something was amiss in his personal life. As they say, where there's smoke, there's fire.

The series of small earthquakes in the region served as a warning that a larger one might be coming. It was a case of ''where there's smoke, there's fire.'

She noticed inconsistencies in his tall tales and decided to read between the lines, suspecting that where there was smoke, there was fire.

His grades had been dropping steadily before he got kicked out of school. I guess there's no fire without smoke.

The sudden drop in sales was a sign of larger crises to come. As they say, where there's smoke there's often fire. 

The unexpected resignation of the town's mayor left the town puzzled. Many believed it the smoke before the fire for the upcoming election season.

She wondered if the implementation of these new bi-weekly meetings was a sign; after all, where there's smoke there's usaully fire.

Since they knew that where there's smoke there's often fire, they decided to procede with the development of a new vaccine.

Other Ways to Say 'Where There's Smoke, There's Fire'

There are different ways to say that the signs are a good indication of what's to come. The following expressions vary in their nuances and applications, but they all share the underlying theme that appearances or signs often point to an underlying reality or truth.

  • Where there's a spark, there's a flame
  • If the shoe fits, wear it
  • Follow the trail of breadcrumbs
  • The tip of the iceberg
  • The writing on the wall
  • Follow the scent
  • Canary in a coal mine

Concluding Thoughts

So there you have it; to say that where there's smoke, there's fire is a way to indicate that we should pay attention to the signs as there's often something deeper going on. 

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! 

We encourage you to share this article on Twitter and Facebook. Just click those two links - you'll see why.

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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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