Words in the News


Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

Much of the UK has been sweltering in a heatwave, with temperatures much higher than seasonal averages for several weeks and no significant rainfall in many areas for nearly two months. The grass is brown and crispy, farmers are warning of shortages, and hosepipe bans are in operation in some places, despite the unusually long and wet spring. Meteorological records are being broken: the driest summer since 1961, the hottest since 1976 and so on.  We are not alone, of course: many parts of the world are experiencing extreme heat, and temperatures in the low to mid thirties are just an average summer for many places; but as people like to point out, we are not used to this kind of weather on these temperate islands.

I haven’t actually seen the classic silly season headline “Phew what a scorcher!” but the media has been full of stories about the weather: what to wear, how to keep cool, hot weather dishes, warnings to stay out of the sun and so on. Having fretted for years about how to keep our homes warm in the winter, we are now presented with the unfamiliar notion of trying to keep them cool in the summer too.

In addition to its core meaning of the quality of being hot or the degree to which something is hot, the noun heat has several other meanings, mostly related to temperature but some not, or at least not obviously: a heat in a race, for example, comes from an earlier figurative meaning of ‘intense effort’. Heat can be used to refer to strong and angry feelings, as when we talk about taking the heat out of a situation; the heat is also pressure and criticism intended to force someone to do what you want.

As you would expect, heat forms many compounds, from heat exhaustion, heatstroke, heat rash and prickly heat to heat pump and heat map. White heat can be literally the temperature at which metal becomes white or metaphorically a state of strong emotion or intense activity. A dead heat refers to the racing meaning of heat mentioned above, and is used when two people finish a race at exactly the same time.

Heat is used in several phrases, including in the heat of the moment and if you can’t stand the heat (get out of the kitchen), a phrase originally associated with US President Harry S Truman, and later with a song by the 80s pop group Bucks Fizz. Heat is of Germanic origin and is related to Dutch ‘hitte’ and German ‘Hitze’, meaning ‘heat’.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

1 Comment

  • I should say that I am not an etymologist and I get my etymologies from various sources. The information about the etymology of ‘heat’ comes from Etymonline, which is a great website, all the more impressive for being a one-man band.

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