rake over the coals: Idiom Meaning and Origin

What does ‘rake over the coals’ mean?

The idiom "rake over the coals" means to severely criticize or reprimand someone for their actions or mistakes, often with the intention of making them feel guilty or ashamed.

Idiom Explorer

Untangling Fiery Origins

The idiom "rake over the coals" is often used to describe the act of criticizing someone harshly or reprimanding them severely. It originated from the practice of raking over coals in order to remove ashes and charred pieces of wood from a fire to keep it burning efficiently. First appearing in written form in the early 18th century, the phrase "rake over" was used in various contexts, such as raking over the earth to dig up buried treasure or raking over a bed of coals to uncover hidden embers. It is believed that the idiom "rake over the coals" evolved from these earlier uses.

The metaphorical meaning of the idiom developed from the physical act of raking over coals to ensure that a fire continues to burn brightly. When someone is subjected to being raked over the coals, it means they are being thoroughly examined or scrutinized to address any issues or wrongdoing. The intention behind using this idiom is to highlight the severity and intensity of the criticism or reprimand being given.

In modern usage, "rake over the coals" is often used in the context of accountability and reprimand. It is commonly employed when someone is being questioned or criticized harshly for their actions or decisions. For example, a manager might haul an employee over the coals who made a costly mistake, or a parent might rake over the coals a child who broke a valuable item. The idiom conveys a sense of intense scrutiny and reprimand.

Rake the coals to spread the heat evenly.

While the idiom "rake over the coals" is not typically used in a positive or neutral context, its metaphorical connection to the act of maintaining a fire's strength through raking over coals is clear and logical. By raking over coals, one ensures that the fire continues to burn brightly, just as by subjecting someone to a thorough examination or scrutiny, one addresses any issues or wrongdoing.

The idiom "haul someone over the coals" is closely related to "rake over the coals." When someone is hauled over the coals, it means they are being severely criticized or reprimanded, similar to being raked over the coals. The phrase "haul someone over the coals" suggests a forceful and intense review of someone's actions or behavior, emphasizing the severity of the criticism or reprimand.

The idiom "run the rule over" also shares a connection with "rake over the coals." When someone runs the rule over, they are carefully examining or scrutinizing something or someone. Just as someone is subjected to a thorough examination or scrutiny when they are raked over the coals, "run the rule over" suggests a meticulous assessment or evaluation.

It is important to note that the idiom "rake over the coals" is inherently negative in its connotation. It implies a forceful, critical review that is intended to reprimand or chastise the individual in question. The idiom is widely understood by English speakers, although its exact origin and development over time are not well-documented. However, its meaning and usage continue to be relevant and widely used in the English language.

Example usage

Examples of how the idiom *rake over the coals* can be used in a sentence:

1. The boss decided to rake over the coals during the meeting, criticizing every mistake we made.

2. The journalist raked over the coals to uncover the truth behind the corruption scandal.

3. After the disappointing performance, the coach raked over the coals with the team, highlighting their mistakes and areas for improvement.

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