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Blowing hot and cold

Among the first words that learners of a new language acquire are the words for hot and cold. The concepts are so basic to human experience that we don’t get through a day without many references to them. Hot, cold, and the basic words that are semantically connected with them (such as heat, cool, thaw, freeze, warm, melt, burn) all have their literal jobs to do, but English demands far more of these words than just their literal meanings. A look at the collocations and compounds that words related to temperature and temperature change participate in gives an interesting picture of the metaphors connected with temperature that are embedded in English.

Let’s assume that temperatures are on a continuum, with hot and cold at the extremes, with warm and cool between them. The sweet spot on the continuum seems to be warm. Warm relations are nearly always welcome, and when someone warms to an idea or plan, it’s a sign that their cooperation is imminent. Who doesn’t liked to be treated or greeted with warmth?

As things heat up, however, all the pleasantness of warmth fades pretty quickly. You may find yourself in hot water. Hot spots are often to be avoided, and hot topics must be treated with caution, since discussing them may cause temperatures to rise, especially in those who have hot tempers. If you notice that someone’s face is flaming, you should probably leave at once. And if someone hands you a hot potato, you’ll surely want to get rid of it rather than eat it.

Despite the dangers associated with it, there’s another kind of implied heat that many cultivate rather than avoid, and that’s the heat of being hot. When you’re hot, you can usually count on getting more than a warm reception; you may find that others are hot for you. You may, in fact, be a hottie, in which case you may find that others are in hot pursuit of you.

You should be aware that all of this heat may cause burning passion. If you live in the world of romantic fiction, it may actually be your lips (or her lips, or his lips) that burn. Indeed, you may even find yourself (or your partner) on fire. The kisses from his (or her) fiercely hot lips may sear your flesh. When this happens, there is abundant corpus evidence that your flesh or your bones may melt  in the heat of passion.

Assuming that these scenarios do not leave you with physiological damage, their aftermath would probably be a good time to cool your heels. And it would be good if you could keep things cool, or keep your cool, because if you let the temperature drop any further, the fun drops right out of everything. Your formerly fiery partner may suddenly give you a cold shoulder. You may feel as if they have thrown cold water on you. This may cause you to break out in a cold sweat. If they freeze you out  completely, you will have to go cold turkey, an experience that may be numbing and that will not even afford cold comfort.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find that someone has set up a hotline for people in your situation.

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Orin Hargraves


  • Lovely post Orin, which was as flowing and entertaining to read as it was informative. I love the stock phrase ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’, meaning, if something is too difficult for you, it might be best to give up and leave it to those who can cope better. Also if there is an issue you don’t want to deal with right now, you can pop it ‘on the back burner’, the less hot part of the cooker, to just bubble away for a bit and allow you some thinking time. If there’s something you really don’t feel you need to deal with any time soon, you can always put it in the ‘deep freeze’ or put it ‘on ice’. So many of these useful, temperature-themed phrases! Thanks for drawing my attention to them.

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