The Grammarphobia Blog

Neither hot nor cold

Q: Like the King of Siam, I have a puzzlement. I will be most grateful if you can help me make sense of the word “lukewarm.”

A: We assume you’re puzzled about the history of “lukewarm,” not its meaning (mildly warm or indifferent).

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the key to “lukewarm” is an obsolete Middle English term for tepid, leuk or luke.

The dictionary calls attention to another obsolete Middle English term, lew, meaning warm or sunny, which it traces back to hleow, an Old English word for warm.

Chambers also notes the similarity of luke to other Germanic words for tepid or weak, such as luk in Low German and leuk in modern Dutch.

But the Oxford English Dictionary says “it seems impossible to connect the word etymologically” to the Low German and modern Dutch words, “notwithstanding the resemblance in form and meaning.”

When the adjective “lukewarm” entered English in the late 14th century, according to OED citations, it meant moderately warm or tepid.

The earliest published reference in Oxford is from a 1398 translation of Bartholomew de Glanville’s De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Order of Things), a 13th-century encyclopedia:

“The broth of clete … comfortyth the teeth: yf it be luke warme hote holde in the mouth.” (“Clete” is an obsolete term for burdock, a root vegetable.)

By the early 16th century, “lukewarm” was being used loosely to describe someone with  little warmth or depth of feeling or enthusiasm.

The OED’s earliest citation is from Thomas More’s De Quatuor Novissimis (The Four Last Things, 1522):

“Like as god said in thapocalips vnto the churche of Loadice. Thou arte neyther hote nor cold but luke warme, I would thou were colde yt thou mighteste waxe warme.”

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