The Grammarphobia Blog

Is the temp hot or high?

Q: I was born in the Netherlands and moved to the United States in 1960. I have a pet peeve about the English spoken here. Why do weathermen speak of temperatures as “hot” or “cold,” instead of “high” or “low”?

A: You’re technically correct about “hot” or “cold” – that is, if one is measuring temperature strictly in number of degrees.

In that case, good usage would call for an adjective like “high” or “low” or something in between. Numbers in themselves aren’t hot or cold.

But here’s another way of looking at it: Does temperature have an independent existence, apart from its measurement in numbers?

We think it does, in the sense that people often speak of the temperature subjectively – not in numbers but in terms of its effect on them personally. 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “temperature” in this sense as “the state of a substance or body with regard to sensible warmth or coldness, referred to some standard of comparison.”

The OED goes on to say that temperature is “usually measured by means of a thermometer or similar instrument.” But the instrument or standard of comparison could also be the human body and its comfort range.

We would argue that temperature exists (or manifests itself) apart from its measurement by a thermometer.

We’ve found references in the OED to the noun “temperature” modified by adjectives like “hot,” “cold,” “warm,” “cool,” “moderate,” and “comfortable” – all of them subjective rather than numerical assessments.

Someone who says “The temperature is too hot” is using himself and not a thermometer to do the measuring.

In short, it may not be scientifically accurate to speak of a “hot temperature,” but such a phrase is not only idiomatically common but supported by common sense.

If you’re unconvinced and would like another opinion, here’s a word from the columnist Barbara Wallraff, writing in The Atlantic in 1998: “Hot and the rest of them as modifiers for temperature fall well within the acceptable bounds.”

“The conceptual relationships of English adjectives to their nouns are multifarious,” she writes, “and it will be a sad day, a sorry state of affairs, an unhappy turn of events, and so forth if our language ever loses this characteristic.”

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