Origin of the Expression “You are Fired!” [Business Folklore]

Origin of the expression 'You are fired!' The term ‘fired’ is a colloquial expression for dismissing a person from employment. It became more popular owing to the NBC reality show ‘The Apprentice’ where the host, businessman Donald Trump, eliminates contestants for a high-level management job by “firing” them successively. Indeed, in 2004, Donald Trump filed a trademark application for the catchphrase “You’re fired!”

Some sources suggest that the term may have originated from the expression “fire a gun” as in “discharge a gun.” However, legend has it that the term originated in the 1910s at the National Cash Register (NCR) Company.

John Henry Patterson, founder of National Cash Register (NCR) NCR founder John Henry Patterson (1844–1922) is widely recognized as the pioneer of sales management and for developing formal methods for training and assessing salespersons. Nevertheless, Patterson, for all his genius, was quirky. He was obsessed with total control of everything around him. He imposed his personal values on employees. As a food and fitness fanatic, he had employees weighed every six months. He often dismissed employees for trivial reasons just to break their self-confidence and recruited them back soon after.

John Patterson’s employees and customers branded him abusive and confrontational. Patterson once dismissed an executive by asking him to visit a customer. When the executive drove back to NCR headquarters, he observed his desk tossed out into the lawn. Right on time, his desk burst out into flames. He was “fired.”

Thomas Watson Sr. was “fired” by NCR

Thomas J. Watson Sr., former President of International Business Machines (IBM) Famously, NCR’s star sales executive Thomas Watson Sr. met a similar fate. In 1914, Watson argued that NCR’s dominant product, mechanical cash registers, would soon go obsolete. He proposed that NCR develop electric cash registers. Patterson resisted the idea. He demanded that Watson focus on nothing but sales and not worry about innovation. Following an argument at a meeting, Patterson dismissed Watson. In a fit of anger, Patterson had workers carry Watson’s desk outside and had it lit on fire. Thomas Watson Sr. was thus “fired.” Thomas Watson Sr. then joined a smaller competitor, Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (C-T-R,) which soon grew into International Business Machines (IBM.) Thomas Watson Sr. led IBM for forty years and turned IBM into the world’s leading technology company.


  1. Sally S. says

    In the last paragraph there is mentioned a man called Peterson. Unless there is another man (which should be clarified and introduced if that is the case) this is a typo of Patterson. The person who edits these needs to pay a bit more attention as this is such a short story. It is hard to take the information in it as accurate when it wasn’t checked for errors prior to submission.

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