Summertime skies are aglow around the globe as elaborate fireworks displays celebrate everything from independence to marriage. But where did the word firework actually come from?
Understanding the history of the word firework means understanding the history of fireworks themselves. Many historians believe fireworks were originally invented in China in the 9th century, mostly to scare away evil spirits rather than entertain.
Marco Polo brought fireworks to Europe in 1295, although gunpowder – from which early fireworks were made – was introduced earlier via the Crusades. By the early 1500s, most people knew fireworks as military explosives, but eventually these explosives adopted a non-violent application, as victories or times of peace were celebrated with fireworks light shows.
By the tail end of the 16th century, the word fireworks was officially understood to describe this particular type of pyrotechnics and was the result of combining two Old English words.
Fyr, as you might expect, meant fire in Old English. Works was used to describe deeds or actions. So in the 1570s, the word literally meant, fiery deeds or actions (or light shows, as it were).
A century later, the figurative use of fireworks became commonplace, to describe a spectacular display of fierce activity. For example, “The book’s plot is loaded with fireworks as every chapter presents a new twist or turn.”
Fireworks displays become commonplace after being popularized by the royals. King James II’s coronation presentation earned his fire master a knighthood; meanwhile Czar Peter the Great of Russia hosted a five-hour fireworks show to celebrate the birth of his son. It’s no wonder then, that by the Renaissance, pyrotechnic schools began popping up as budding alchemists learned to change the color, brightness and shape of fireworks.
As for the close link between Independence Day and fireworks? Fireworks were brought over to America in the early 17th century. On July 4, 1777, the first anniversary of the day the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, fireworks were lit in celebration – and have been dazzling the masses every year thereafter. A spectacular display indeed!