Issue 162, page 1
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Phew, it's been so hot lately! Have you ever thought about hot and heat? The difference between the adjective and the noun is merely a change of vowel. This alteration of an internal vowel is known as an ablaut inflection. It is a very ancient trait of Indo-European languages which has all but disappeared from most modern languages. Curiously, it is still quite common in English. Thus we have sit, sat and seat, raise, rise and rose, draw and drew and many others. The entire process seems so natural to speakers of English that Americans invented the word dove (as in swimming pool, not as in aviary) as the past tense of dive. (The British word is dived.)
Het is another ablaut inflection; it is the past tense of the verb to heat. So, to get all het up is to become "all heated up".
A heat meant the same as a heating. Thus a cookery book of 1430 instructs us to "sette it on the fire an giffe it an hete" where we might have said "set it on the fire and give it a heating". This sense of heat led to its use in racing. Before racing a horse it would be given a preparatory run. Today, we would refer to this as a "warming-up exercise" but in the 16th century it was called giving the horse a heat (i.e. "a heating"). In time, any preliminary run before a race became known as a heat and when two runners cross the finish line together it is called a dead heat.
Speaking of dead and heat in the same sentence reminds us that (in detective fiction, at least) a heater is a handgun which, used unadvisedly, could put you in the cooler.
Hot and heat are purely Germanic words with, apparently, no relatives in other Indo-European languages. Warm, on the other hand, was related to Latin formus, "warm", Sanskrit gharma, "heat" and Greek thermos, "hot". Although thermos meant "hot" in Greek, a Thermos (note the capital letter) bottle will keep cold things cold as easily as it keeps hot things hot. [But how does it know? - M&M]
A trail left by an animal is said to be warm if it is very recent, suggesting that the warmth of the animal's body may still be detected. This is why, in children's games, one is said to get warmer as one approaches the goal.
Latin had the word gelidus which meant "icy cold" or "frosty". In Germanic languages this shows up as Dutch koude, German kalt, kälte, Old English cald and modern English cold. Cool is yet another ablaut variation, this time of cold. [No, we don't know what happened to the final D - M&M] It is thought that the Old English cald was pronounced "chald". Just knowing that makes it a little easier to see that chill is also related.
Frequently, words for heat and cold are used to denote passion. Hence, when we say "X leaves us cold" we mean that X does not inflame our passions. Perhaps it might if we were a little more hot-blooded. Also, cold comfort is usually comfort in word only and is devoid of sympathy.
German immigrants to the United States were fond of an assortment of sliced, cooked meats which they called kalte Aufschnitt. Literally translated this became cold cuts. Which reminds us... it's almost supper time.
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Last Updated 07/12/02 09:22 PM