Word of the Day


© Getty Images/iStockphoto
Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter


a narrow area of land from which all the trees and bushes have been removed in order to prevent fires from spreading from one part of the countryside to another

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary

Origin and usage

The noun firebreak is formed from the noun ‘fire’ and the verb and noun ‘break’. Originally used in American English, it has been around since the early 19th century.


 A firebreak is a method of stopping a fire from spreading by depriving it of fuel. Fire metaphors are often used in relation to diseases, which are said to flare up, for example, or to spread like wildfire, and Covid is no exception. (There’s an interesting blog post on the subject by Elena Semino which you can read here.) A temporary lockdown to break the transmission of the disease is often referred to as a circuit breaker (another metaphor) or sometimes, oddly, a ‘circuit break’. The news that the Welsh government is to impose a short lockdown from Friday, however, has been reported across the media as a firebreak. It remains to be seen whether this metaphorical use will survive the pandemic or whether it will turn out to be a flash in the pan – the temptation to pile on the idioms in these situations is almost irresistible, as you can see from the second quotation below.


A short, sharp “firebreak” will be introduced across Wales at the end of this week to help regain control of coronavirus, First Minister Mark Drakeford announced today.

“First Minister Mark Drakeford said the “time-limited firebreak” would be “a short, sharp, shock to turn back the clock, slow down the virus and buy us more time”.”

Related words

blaze, bushfire, conflagration, wildfire

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

About the author

Liz Potter

Liz Potter

Leave a Comment