Today’s anecdote comes from the world of triggering marketing campaigns. I’ve changed a few details in the following story to protect the innocent, but the gist is intact.

A band, led by my friend who relayed to me this story, has found some success in bumping up attendance at their monthly pub gigs. They offer their fans a link to a free song download via a precisely timed email blast the day before each appearance. These blasts used to be sent by the bandleader, but more recently, two of the members took it over: the guitarist, who is a marketing guy from Texas and writes the email copy, and the drummer, a Scotsman who is really good at technology, and thus is the band’s guru on the marketing software used to send out these communications. Together, they drive the process, keeping the bandleader (from New England) apprised.

This month, they got their blast all set up and ready to go. Then, the Texan sent an email to the Scot (cc’ing the bandleader) that said, presumably in his native twang, “Fire in the hole!”

The Scot replied, we all imagine in full brogue, “Aye aye, Skipper!” To the New Englander bandleader’s ears, each turn of phrase was as colorful and delightful as the next. Such a fun team, she thought.

Then, they all waited. One, two, three hours went by, and the business day came to a close. Strangely, though, no bounce in activity on their site was evident. The Texan crossed his cowboy-booted ankle over his knee and wondered whether he had misgauged the tone of his email. Zero clicks resulting from what he thought was an enticing offer seemed suspect. Finally, he sent a query to the team, and learned that the Scot hadn’t sent it, as he had expected him to do.

“Why didn’t you send it?” asked the Texan.

“Because you said, ‘Fire in the hole,’” replied the Scot.

“Right!” said the Texan. “That meant that you were supposed to pull the trigger.”

“No!” said the Scot. “It meant that you were going to pull it yourself. ‘Fire in the hole’ means the same as…”

At this point, the game of telephone by which I received this anecdote from the bandleader gets murky. The Scot gave what he thought was an analogous expression—something very Scottish about barrels, she thought. I imagine it was, “Don’t put your kilt on the wrong haggis barrel,” or something. We’ll have to get clarification.

Then, I (an editor/bystander, from New York, frequently asked for opinions on such matters) inaccurately proclaimed to the bandleader/storyteller, “No, the expression is ‘fire in the hold,’ which is a nautical expression meaning ‘abandon ship’ because the engine is on fire. It implies that the Texan was launching the blast.” And that little bit of sage wisdom was totally incorrect on many counts! First of all, a “hold” is the cargo bay, not the engine room. Second, “fire in the hole” turns out to be a mining term, meaning, “The dynamite is set. Everyone should stand back, and you should trigger the detonation.” (Later, it became a military term meaning “It’s time for you to toss a grenade into that enclosed space!”) It has nothing to do with ships and engine fires, and more importantly, it is a directive that someone else is to do something, not that you are doing it yourself.

So, the Texan was correct in his use of the phrase. However, he also torpedoed the timing of the campaign by assuming that everyone would know what he meant.

The moral of the story: If you use colorful turns of phrases in time-critical situations, make sure that everyone knows what the heck you’re talking about!

And also, don’t put your kilt on the wrong haggis barrel. It’s almost never a good idea.

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