Q: Greg Easterbrook recently complained in the NYT about “freezing temperatures.” In his words, “Temperature is a mathematical measure: Numbers don’t freeze. Temperatures can be high or low; air is what’s hot or cold.” Greg’s a smart guy, but is he right?
A: No, Greg is wrong. Sometimes people of a literal bent go to ridiculous extremes, throwing common sense out the window. Our advice to Greg: Chill out.
Writers, including scientists, have been using “freezing temperature” or “freezing temperatures” for hundreds of years to mean the degree of coldness at which something freezes.
What’s not to understand here? In weather parlance, this generally means a temperature at which water is converted to ice.
Oxford Dictionaries online defines “temperature” as the “degree or intensity of heat present in a substance or object, especially as expressed according to a comparative scale and shown by a thermometer or perceived by touch.”
In medicine, according to Oxford, the term refers to the “degree of internal heat of a person’s body,” and, informally, to a “body temperature above the normal; fever.”
The dictionary says “temperature” can also mean the “degree of excitement or tension in a discussion or confrontation.”
Oxford gives these numberless examples: “strong winds and freezing temperatures” … “I’ll take her temperature” … “he was running a temperature” … “the temperature of the debate was lower than before.”
Although “temperature” is often expressed numerically, a number isn’t necessary. One can say, “My temperature is normal” or “My temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit” … “The temperature outside is freezing” or “The temperature is 0° Celsius.”
In its entry for “freezing,” Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged online says the adjective means “being at or below freezing point,” and it gives this example: “the temperature is freezing.”
In fact, Merriam-Webster’s offers a second definition in which “freezing” is used loosely to mean merely “very cold,” a usage that we found in four other standard dictionaries.
So lexicographers don’t seem to mind referring to “temperatures” as “freezing.” And they don’t have a mental picture of numbers turning to ice.
We use “boiling” in the same way: “The water in the teapot often reaches boiling temperature within five minutes.” Here the adjective “boiling” means sufficient to make something boil.
People commonly use “-ing” participles adjectivally. Every day we use perfectly normal English constructions like “frying pan,” “playing field,” “walking pace,” “crying shame,” and so on.
We don’t mean that the pan is frying, that the field is playing, that the pace is walking, or that the shame is crying.
In searches of online databases, we’ve found many examples for “freezing temperature” or “freezing temperatures” in scientific and other writing dating back to the 18th century. Here are a few early examples:
“When the air was at or near the freezing temperature, the logarithmic differences gave the real height,” from Observations Made in Savoy (1777), a treatise by Sir George Shuckburgh on measuring the height of mountains.
“When salt-water ice floats in the sea at a freezing temperature, the proportion above to that below the surface, is as 1 to 4 nearly,” from the April 11, 1818, issue of the Literary Gazette in London.
“We also know that eggs from perfectly healthy worms, if they be kept at one time in a warm place, and at another in a very cold place, sometimes in warm stove rooms, then in cold, freezing temperatures … will be very certain to produce worms subject to the yellows,” from an 1839 issue of the Journal of the American Silk Society.
By the way, the noun “temperature” had nothing to do with heat or cold, whether expressed numerically or not, when it showed up in English in the mid-1500s.
English adopted the word from Latin, where temperāre meant to moderate or mix, and temperātūra referred to moderation or a proper mixture.
That sense of moderation in temperāre and temperātūra has given English the words “temperance” and “temperate,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.
In English, “temperature” initially referred to mixing and moderating, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but that sense of the word is now considered obsolete.
The sense you’re asking about (which the OED defines as the “state of a substance or body with regard to sensible warmth or coldness”) didn’t show up until the late 17th century.
The dictionary’s earliest example is from the title of a 1670 tract by the chemist and physicist Robert Boyle: Of the Temperature of the Submarine Regions as to Heat and Cold.
The use of “temperature” for a “degree of excitement or tension” showed up in this example from Arthur Penrhyn Stanley’s Lectures on the History of the Jewish Church (1863): “The temperature of the zeal of the different portions of the nation.”
And the use of the word for a fever appeared in Percy White’s 1898 novel A Millionaire’s Daughter : “Do you think I have a temperature?”
The adjective “freezing,” which ultimately comes from the Old English verb fréosan (to freeze), showed up in Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline (which the Oxford Companion to Shakespeare says was produced as early as 1611):
When we are old as you? when we shall hear
The rain and wind beat dark December, how,
In this our pinching cave, shall we discourse
The freezing hours away?