verb (used without object), back·fired, back·fir·ing.

(of an internal-combustion engine) to have a loud, premature explosion in the intake manifold.
to bring a result opposite to that which was planned or expected: The plot backfired.
to start a fire deliberately in order to check a forest or prairie fire by creating a barren area in advance of it.


(in an internal-combustion engine) premature ignition of fuel in the intake manifold.
an explosion coming out of the breech of a firearm.
a fire started intentionally to check the advance of a forest or prairie fire.

Origin of backfire

An Americanism dating back to 1775–85; back2 + fire

Synonyms for backfire

2. miscarry, boomerang; flop, bomb, wash out. Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

Examples from the Web for backfire

Contemporary Examples of backfire

Historical Examples of backfire

  • He got three chugs and a backfire into the carburetor, and after that silence.

    Cabin Fever

    B. M. Bower

  • After—as I said before, on the first shot, it was too sharp to be a backfire of an automobile.

    Warren Commission (7 of 26): Hearings Vol. VII (of 15)

    The President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy

  • It had caught fire from the backfire of the engine and the exhaust, but was not yet in a decided blaze.

    Lest We Forget

    John Gilbert Thompson

  • They must backfire for a third of a mile before they dared hope the place was safe.

  • If you have to burn off the rubbish, do so in small spots at a time, then backfire toward the center.

British Dictionary definitions for backfire


verb (intr)

(of an internal-combustion engine) to emit a loud noise as a result of an explosion in the inlet manifold or exhaust system
(of an endeavour, plan, etc) to have an unwanted effect on its perpetratorhis plans backfired on him
to start a controlled fire in order to halt an advancing forest or prairie fire by creating a barren area


(in an internal-combustion engine)
  1. an explosion of unburnt gases in the exhaust system
  2. a premature explosion in a cylinder or inlet manifold
a controlled fire started to create a barren area that will halt an advancing forest or prairie fire
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for backfire

1839, American English, originally "a fire deliberately lit ahead of an advancing prairie fire to deprive it of fuel," from back (adj.) + fire (n.). As a verb in this sense, recorded from 1886. The meaning "premature ignition in an internal-combustion engine" is first recorded 1897. Of schemes, plans, etc., "to affect the initiator rather than the intended object" it is attested from 1912, a figurative use from the accidental back-firing of firearms.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper