[Note: This post was updated on Dec. 4, 2021.]
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 numerically in 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 temperature has an independent existence apart from its measurement in numbers. In addition to being measured objectively, it can be felt or perceived. Before the thermometer was invented, and long before it became a common instrument, people referred to “temperature(s)” subjectively as “hot,” not “high.”
Our searches of historical databases show that medical uses of “hot temperature(s)” related to sickness date back to the 1580s, long before thermometers existed. (The device as we know it was not invented until the 18th century.)
And in the early 1600s, the words “hot” and “temperature(s)” were associated in writings about atmospheric conditions. Here’s an early weather-related sighting:
“whether the fashion of these late discovered Nations to go naked, be a custome forced by the hote temperature of the ayre, as we say of the Indians and Moores.” From a 1613 translation of the Essays of Michel de Montaigne.
We’ve found several other 17th-century uses of “hot temperature(s)” in the database Early English Books Online.
The “hot” versions predated “high” ones, which did not appear until the late 18th century. In fact, we’ve found no written uses of “high temperature(s)” before the 1780s, when the usage began showing up in scientific writing.
This is the oldest “high” example we’ve found: “the necessity of giving a high temperature to the mixture for that purpose.” From a chapter on phosphoric acid in Elements of Natural History, and of Chemistry (1788), William Nicholson’s translation from the French of Antoine-François de Fourcroy.
The phrase “high temperature(s),” used about equally in singular and plural, appeared more frequently in the 1790s and early 1800s, almost exclusively in scientific writing. In ordinary English, “high temperature(s)” was virtually nonexistent.
However, as the 19th century progressed, “high” uses gradually supplanted “hot” in popularity, even in everyday language. And the “high” versions remain more popular today. Why?
Our guess is that “high” usages grew predominant as the thermometer became a more familiar and widely used instrument, and as “temperature” came to be regarded less as a subjective, sensory perception and more of a numerical measurement.
The early uses we cite, by the way, aren’t intended to show that in modern English “hot” is more historically “correct” than “high” in describing temperature. They simply show that before there were thermometers, the word was used subjectively, not associated with numerical measurement. A person who uses “hot” today may have that same conception—of temperature as something felt. There’s nothing unreasonable about that.
But while “hot” is reasonable in these uses, it’s far from ubiquitous. Searches using Google’s Ngram Viewer show how phrasal combinations of “high,” “hot,” and “temperature(s)” have been recorded in British and American books published between 1800 and 2019:
You can see that the “hot” versions lag far behind the “high” ones. If this is your chief complaint about American usage, console yourself with the fact that it’s not as widespread as you might think.
The noun “temperature” entered English in the early 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it, in the sense we’re talking about, 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.
The dictionary has examples with “temperature” modified by adjectives like “hot,” “cold,” “warm,” “cool,” “moderate,” and “comfortable”—all subjective rather than numerical assessments.
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.”