hot, warm, cool, cold

During the week, the slang sense of ‘cool’ cropped up in class twice, quite independently. I briefly explained it (and attempted to act it!) along with the informal and/or slang senses of ‘hot’, ‘warm’ and ‘cold’. Over the last few days, I’ve done some more reading about those words. With their primary meanings of ‘degrees of temperature’, they have been part of English for over a thousand years, and have recognisable cognates in the other West Germanic languages. The informal and/or slang senses have developed over time. (based on the Random House Dictionary) has 27 definitions for ‘hot’ as an adjective, five of which it marks as ‘Informal.’ and six as ‘Slang.’, leaving 16 unmarked and presumably regarded as standard.

The standard senses cover: fire, coffee, with fever, ointment, mustard, temper, battle, scent or trail, on the trail, from the press, freight (‘requiring immediate delivery’), pink (and other colours), ‘close to the object or answer that is being sought’, jazz music and musicians, (electrical) wire, radioactivity and metalworking.

The informal senses are:
‘having a strong enthusiasm; eager: a hot baseball fan.’
‘popular and commercially successful; in demand; marketable: The Beatles were a hot group in the 1960s.’
‘extremely exciting or interesting; sensational or scandalous: a hot news story.’
‘(of a vehicle) capable of attaining extremely high speeds: a hot new jet plane.’
‘in the mood to perform exceedingly well, or rapidly, as during a burst of creative work: Finish writing that story while you’re still hot.’

The slang senses are:
‘1. sexually aroused; lustful. 2. sexy; attractive.’
‘skillful in a reckless or daring way: a hot pilot.’
‘extremely lucky, good, or favorable: A poker player has to have a hot hand to win the pot.’
‘(in sports and games) playing well or winningly; scoring effectively: a hot pitcher.’
‘funny; absurd: That’s a hot one!’
‘1. stolen recently or otherwise illegal and dangerous to possess: a hot diamond necklace. 2. wanted by the police. 3. dangerous.’

I was going to play this song to my students anyway, then one student mentioned it first (see also ‘Hot stuff’ and ‘Hot blooded’). has 14 definitions for ‘warm’ as an adjective, only one of which it marks as ‘Informal.’. The standard senses cover: bath, oven, climate, summer, body, clothes, colours, heart, interest, friends, welcome, temper, debate, scent, ‘close to something sought, as in a game’ (see ‘hot’ above) and ‘uncomfortable or unpleasant’

The one ‘British Informal.’ sense is ‘well off; in easy circumstances.’, which I have never encountered.

There are several songs with the title ‘Warm’, but the one that caught my eye was this blast from the 70s. has 14 definitions for ‘cool’ as an adjective, with one marked ‘Informal.’ and ‘Slang.’.

The standard senses include: evening, body, breeze, dress, reaction, action,  reply, reception, lie, appraisal and colours. (One of the references in class was ‘cool jazz’, but there is no specific reference to that here.)

The informal sense is: ‘(of a number or sum) without exaggeration or qualification: a cool million dollars.’ and the slang (sub-)sense(s) is(/are):
‘1. great; fine; excellent: a real cool comic.
2. characterized by great facility; highly skilled or clever: cool maneuvers on the parallel bars.
3. socially adept: It’s not cool to arrive at a party too early.
4. acceptable; satisfactory; okay: If you want to stay late, that’s cool.’

The related interjection is:
‘1. (used to express acceptance): Okay, cool! I’ll be there at 10:00.
2. (used to express approval, admiration, etc.): He got the job? Cool!’

What is most interesting here is that ‘cool’ can be either positive or negative.

Before Happy Days, there was West Side Story, and I can’t possibly resist: has 17 definitions for ‘cold’ as an adjective, one of which is marked ‘Slang.’. The standard senses include: water, day, overall body temperature (including ‘dead’), hands, reason, reply, reception, lack of sexual desire, precision, impassivity, atmosphere (eg of a hospital waiting room), unconscious, scent, ‘(in games) distant from the object of search or the correct answer.’, colours, soil (‘slow to absorb heat, as a soil containing a large amount of clay and hence retentive of moisture.’) and metalworking.

The slang sense is:
‘(in sports and games) not scoring or winning; ineffective: Cold shooting and poor rebounding were their undoing.’

I remember this one.

Several issues arise. What do ‘informal’ and ‘slang’ actually mean? At what point does ‘slang’ become ‘informal’ become (unmarked), is that the inevitable order of progression, and who decides?

Other parts of speech show similarities and differences. ‘The hots’ is a slang noun phrase, and ‘hot (up)’ is a ‘Chiefly British Informal.’ verb, but the noun and verb are otherwise ‘heat’. The noun is ‘warmth’, but ‘warm’ is a perfectly good verb. ‘Cool’ is used as a noun in some senses, but otherwise the noun is  ‘coolness’ (though some have used ‘coolth’), and the verb is ‘cool’. ‘Cold/the cold’ and ‘coldness’ exist alongside each other as nouns (and ‘a cold’ is something completely different), but there doesn’t seem to be a verb – perhaps ‘chill’ is the closest.

I have, on occasion, told my students to be careful in using the words hot, warm, cool and cold when describing the typical weather of their home country or city, because standards vary. Two years ago, on the first really chilly day of mid-Autumn, the Thai students from Bangkok (record low: 10 degrees centigrade) came in rugged up. Then a young Chinese woman from Harbin (record low: -38) came in wearing very short shorts and a T-shirt.

7 thoughts on “hot, warm, cool, cold

  1. Pingback: love, like, don’t like, hate | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

  2. Pingback: Stay cool | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

  3. Pingback: heatable, heatful | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

  4. It’s interesting how temperature is such a fundamental concept to us that we see so much in its terms. Probably from how crucial heat was for survival in days past. I’m also curious about that distinction between “informal” and “slang;” it’s definitely a pretty permeable border.


  5. In another, smaller, post, I commented that I’d said to my wife, one hot day ‘stay cool’, not ‘stay cold’. Also, we say to sick people ‘keep warm’, not ‘keep hot’.

    The distinction between ‘informal’ and ‘standard’ is permeable, too. ‘bus’ and ‘phone’ started maybe as slang but definitely informal. Who says ‘telephone’ (well, maybe) and ‘omnibus’ (in that context) now?


  6. Pingback: less cold | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

  7. Pingback: An awful lot of words | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

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