During these tough economic times, a goodly number of unfortunate people have had to ankle their jobs. Ankle, with the suggestion of walking, is Variety-ese for “to leave a position,” either voluntarily or otherwise. The otherwise part, as many know too well, can be expressed in a variety of words meaning “to dismiss” or “to discharge” an employee. Some have long etymological histories, which you probably didn’t stop to investigate when you were being fired, sacked, canned, or axed.
Most common nowadays is to fire, or, if on the passive side of the equation, to be fired. As a metaphorical verb, fire has been around at least since the 12th century, when it meant “to arouse or excite,” stemming from the Old English word fyrian, “to supply with fire.” The first known usage of the word meaning “to dismiss from employment” occurred in the 1880s. It probably originated as a play on the two meanings of discharge, i.e. “to fire a gun” and “to terminate employment.” Originally the phrase was fired out (of a job), but in 1889, the Pall Mall Gazette used the word in its modern sense: “A Commissioner who should be discovered to have reported a subordinate unjustly would be fired from his high post.”
To sack a worker has even older provenance. Perhaps originating from the idea of an artisan going away with his tools in a bag, the original term was to give the sack (to someone). A 17th century French occurrence of the phrase luy a donné son sac has been noted by the Online Etymological Dictionary. An 1841 article in the Catholic News reported: “He said that he had just come from Glasgow, and that he had been ‘sacked.’”
To can, meaning to preserve foods in tin cans can be found as early as 1871, but its use as a synonym for dismiss—probably with the connotation of one’s being put out of circulation—dates only to 1905. And ax, meaning to economize either by cutting expenses or cutting employees from the payroll, came into general usage in the 1920s.
The British, in their inscrutable delicacy, prefer to make an undesired worker redundant.
Redundancy is the raison d’être of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, to wit:
No sooner had the boss agreed to hire me,
Than she began to threaten she would fire me,
Ax me, can me, sack me, terminate me.
And that began to really aggravate me.
But most of all it would antagonize me
If I heard her threaten to downsize me.