(n.) a blustering, over-confident braggart
There’s really no nice way of putting this, but poop crops up a lot more often than it should on this blog. And given that the word cacafuego literally means ‘fire-shitter’, it’s safe to say we’re going back down that way now.
Cacafuego was of course borrowed into English from Spanish, and combines the old verb cacar (origin of the modern Spanish cagar, ‘to void excrement’) with fuego, ‘fire’. It first appeared in English as another word for a blustering braggart in the early 1600s, but we can be fairly sure that it was in use before then, thanks to the somewhat unlikely-sounding involvement of Sir Francis Drake.
In 1578, part-way through his circumnavigation of the Earth, Drake rounded Cape Horn and entered the Pacific Ocean, hot on the heels of a 120-tonne Spanish galleon called the Nuestra Señora. Drake had heard that the ship was laden with a rich cargo of silver and jewels from the Spanish colonies. And he wanted it.
Drake’s Golden Hind caught up with the Nuestra Señora off the coast of Ecuador. Knowing that an attack made under the cover of darkness was his best bet, he slowed his progress by apparently tying some of his ship’s store of wine to the stern and throwing it overboard, so that by the time the Hind reached the Nuestra Señora it was the middle of the night. The Spanish crew were taken by surprise, and after a brief skirmish they surrendered, allowing Drake and his men to take control of the ship.
Drake sailed both the Nuestra Señora and the Golden Hind back to the South American coast to unload her treasure. Knowing just how substantial a prize he had secured for England, he treated the Spanish crew well by inviting the officers to join him for a grand banquet, and giving every crewmember a parting gift and letter of safe conduct to ensure as safe a journey home to Europe as possible.
Drake himself continued on his journey, and having completed his circumnavigation arrived back in Plymouth on 26 November 1580.
So where does all the flaming poop come into this? Well, Drake’s captured galleon might have been officially known as the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, or ‘Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception’, but to her crew she was the Cacafuego, or ‘fire-shitter’. That might seem like an odd (and fairly uncomplimentary) nickname for—well, anything really, but just like the Spitfire centuries after her, the name was probably intended to be a reference to her impressive weaponry and cannon fire more than anything else, or else was an metaphor for her blazing speed through the water and her ‘fiery’ temperament.
And just as the word spitfire has now become a nickname for an irascible, hot-tempered person, in the seventeenth century cacafuego too became a byword for a blustering, swaggering braggart—a meaning perhaps influenced by the fact that, despite her impressive armoury, the Cacafuego had proved no match for Drake.