Word Connections: Hot & Cold

The concepts of “hot” and “cold” are basic to the human experience, and essential to our descriptions of the world around us. Not surprisingly, there are rich linguistic links related to these words, tying English into a web of connections with other European languages. However, these connections also extend into science and geography.

In English, the word “cold” can be either an adjective or a noun. If you say “My soup is cold”, then “cold” is an adjective. If you say “Out in the street I can really feel the cold”, then “cold” is a noun. In contrast, we distinguish between “hot” as an adjective and “heat” as the corresponding noun. So we say “My soup is hot”, and “When I step outside, I can feel the heat”. The words “hot” and “heat” are obviously related, and both have their origins in Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon. In that ancient language, “hot” was hāt (pronounced like “hot”, except that the vowel sound is slightly elongated) and “heat” was hǣtu. In Dutch, a language that is descended from a Germanic dialect very similar to Anglo-Saxon, the modern word for “hot” is heet, pronounced similar to the English word “hate”.

The English word “warm” also means “hot”, but not extremely hot. We often take great pains to distinguish between warm and hot. We might say “My soup is warm, but not hot”. If we say “It is warm outside”, we are suggesting that the weather is comfortable. But if we say “It is hot outside”, then we are probably suggesting that the weather is uncomfortable. The noun form of the word is “warmth”, so we might way “When I touch your hand, I can feel the warmth”. Like the word “hot”, “warm” is derived from an Old English word — in this case wearm. In both Dutch and German, the word for “warm” is warm, which is a good illustration of the ancient connection between English, Dutch, and German.

The word “heat” is not only a noun, it is also a verb, as in “It is starting to heat up around here.” The word “warm” can also be a verb — but in this case the verb matches the adjective, instead of matching the noun. As verbs, there is little difference in meaning between “warm” and “heat”. For example, most of us see no real distinction between warming up the soup and heating up the soup. On the other hand, while the nouns “heat” and “warmth” have similar meanings, we only use one of these terms in a scientific or technical context. It is common to talk about measuring heat, but we never talk about measuring warmth.

The Spanish word for “heat” is calor, identical to the Latin word from which it came. The Spanish way to say “I’m hot” is tengo calor, which literally means “I have heat”. The Spanish phrase for “the weather is hot” is hace calor, which literally means “It makes heat”. The Spanish word for “hot” is caliente, which is clearly related to the word calor. Therefore hot water is agua caliente, and hot springs can be called aguas calientes. The name Agua Caliente or Aguas Calientes is associated with many places in Latin America, as well as several places in California — and most of these places owe their name to hot springs.

The English word “calorie” looks suspiciously similar to the Spanish word calor — because “calorie” is also derived from the same Latin word for heat. We commonly think of calories as a property of food; the more calories we eat, the more likely that we will gain weight. To lose weight, we need to eat fewer calories (or do more exercise). But in fact, a calorie is actually a unit of heat. This may be confusing, because we are not measuring the actual heat content of the food. When we heat up that bowl of soup, we are not increasing the number of calories that we are about to eat. Instead, when we talk about calories in food, we are referring to the amount of energy locked up in the chemical bonds in that food. When those chemical bonds are broken, which happens when our bodies metabolize the food, the energy is released. The amount of energy released can be expressed in terms of calories.

However, when scientists use the word “calorie”, they are often referring to actual heat content of an object, rather than the potential energy contained in food. Therefore, in theory, a scientist could refer to the calories in a bowl of hot soup, and you might not be sure what he really means. While this is an unlikely scenario, it is quite normal for a scientist to refer to the number of calories in a quantity of hot water. In terms of food energy, water has no calories at all. But in terms of heat, it is certainly possible to measure the number of calories in a cup of water. In fact, the original definition of a “calorie” is directly tied to water. A calorie is the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. Therefore it takes exactly 100 calories to raise the temperature of one gram of water from the freezing point (0 degrees C.) to the boiling point (100 degrees C.). However, it takes a lot more calories to actually boil away the water, that is, to convert water at 100 degrees Celsius to steam at 100 degrees Celsius.

A gram of water is not very big — equivalent to a cube that is one centimeter on each side. (A centimeter is less than half an inch.) As you might imagine, it does not require a lot of energy to heat a gram of water by just one degree. So a calorie must be a very small amount of heat energy. Therefore scientists usually talk about kilocalories instead. Each kilocalorie is the same as 1000 calories. But when we talk about the calories in food, that is, the energy potential in the chemical bonds of the food, we are really talking about kilocalories. A food calorie is actually equivalent to 1000 heat calories. What a confusing set of terms! To help deal with this confusion, scientists sometimes refer to a food calorie or a kilocalorie as a Calorie, with a capital “C”.

In Spanish, if you wanted to suggest that something is warm, but not hot, then you could use the word templado. For example, in Colombia, lands that are above 1000 meters in elevation, but below 2000 meters, are called tierra templada. (This translates to elevations between 3300 feet and 6600 feet.) Even though the country sits on the equator, lands at this elevation have a pleasant temperature year round — not too hot and not too cold. For Colombians, these are the lands of eternal springtime. Lands below 1000 meters are called tierra caliente — “hot lands” — and lands above 2000 meters are called tierra fria — “cold lands”. If you climb up high enough in the mountains, between 14,000 and 15,000 feet, you will encounter permanent snow, even though you are in the tropics, near the equator.

The Spanish word templado can also be translated as “temperate” or “moderate”. The Spanish word templado and the English word “temperate” are obviously connected, both derived from the Latin word temperātus, which meant restrained or well regulated. The English verb “temper” still has this meaning, as in “He decided to temper his language around the children.” But the English noun “temper” has gone off on a tangent. Originally the word meant the same thing as “temperament”, another word from the same origin. So you could say, “He has an even temper”, or “She has a nervous temperament”. The words simply meant “disposition” or “personality”, and an adjective was required to identify the type of personality. But the meanings of the words have become narrowed. If we say “He definitely has a temper!”, then the meaning is the same as “He has a nasty temper”. If we say “She certainly is temperamental”, then we are saying that her mood changes quickly and often, and usually in an unpleasant way.

Returning to the concept of heat, the word “temperature” is from the same Latin root as “temperate”, “temper” and “temperament”. And once upon a time, the word “temperature” could refer to a process of moderating something, or it could refer to a person’s temperament. But over time the meaning has shifted, and now we use the word as a measure of how hot or cold something is. But even though temperature is related to heat, it is not the same thing as heat. For example, a hot water bottle containing a gallon of water at 150 degrees Fahrenheit contains twice as much heat as a smaller hot water bottle containing a half gallon of water at 150 degrees F. But the two water bottles obviously have the same temperature. If your hands and feet are icy cold from playing outside in the snow, and now you want to warm up your extremities with a hot water bottle, then you can certainly extract more heat from the one-gallon bottle than you can from the half-gallon bottle.

The Italian word for “hot” — caldo — is derived from the same Latin root as the Spanish words calor and caliente. The word caldo is also used in Spanish — not to mean “hot”, but to mean “broth”. Of course, broth is traditionally served hot, so that is how the connection arose. In English, a “caldron” (also spelled “cauldron”) would be a good place to heat that broth. As you might guess, the word “caldron” also traces back to the Latin word for heat. And if you accidentally dip your finger into the caldron of hot soup, then you might suffer a “scald” or a “scalding”, which is also derived from the Latin word for hot. The word scald was originally associated with taking a hot bath, and was related to the concept of removing dirt and grime. But over time the meaning of the word has shifted to mean getting burned by extremely hot water.

In Spanish, one of the words for a large cooking pot is caldera, which is clearly connected to our word “caldron” — they have the same meaning and similar spellings. Likewise, the word caldo (broth) is clearly connected to caldera — because you are likely to prepare the caldo in a caldera. In English we use the word “caldera” to refer to the crater at the center of a volcano. If the volcano is active, then the caldera might be filled with liquid lava, bubbling and steaming away. In such a case, the connection to a giant pot of thick soup is obvious. Another Spanish word for a cooking pot is olla. The Spanish expression estamos en la olla (“we’re in the cooking pot”) has essentially the same meaning as the English language expression “We’re in hot water now!” In both cases, the idiom indicates that you have gotten into trouble with someone who has authority over you — and in both cases the humorous analogy is that you are about to get cooked in a pot of soup.

The French word for “hot” — chaud — is derived from the same Latin root as the Spanish and Italian words for hot. The French expression for “I’m hot” is j’ai chaud, which literally means “I have heat” — just like the equivalent Spanish expression tengo calor. The English word “chauffeur” is derived from the French word chaud. “Chauffeur” literally meaning “heater”, which seems an odd designation for someone who makes a living by driving a car. But in the early days of automobiles, the engine of a car had to be warmed up before the car could be driven. Therefore, a key task of the driver was to go heat up the car to get it ready. This person came be known in France as a chauffeur, or heater. The French word then entered English without any further changes.

The modern Greek word for “heat” is thermotita (“θερμότητα”), which sounds a bit like the English word “thermometer”. This is no coincidence. Our word “thermometer” was assembled from two parts — “thermo” and “meter”. The first part is from the Greek word for heat, and the second part means “to measure”. So the word “thermometer” literally means a device to measure heat — although in reality it measures temperature, not heat. We also have the word “Thermos”, as in “Thermos bottle”, taken straight from the old Greek word thermós, meaning heat. So a Thermos bottle prevents the heat from escaping. The word is actually a trademark, invented in the 20th century, but in everyday language the term is often used for any similar bottle, regardless of the actual brand.

Now that we have examined the word connections to “hot”, let’s take a look at “cold”. The English word “cold” is derived from the Old English cald. Similar words can still be found in the modern Scandinavian and Germanic languages. In Danish the word is kold, and in Norwegian it is kald. In Dutch the word is koud, and in German it is kalt. In English we also use the word “cold” as the name of a certain viral disease, because the disease is most common during the winter. So if someone says “January is the peak of cold season”, that person is probably referring to the disease and not the weather.

It is a bit surprising that the Old English word cald (cold) is so similar to the Italian word caldo (hot), and yet the two words have opposite meanings. But the two words have different origins, and therefore the similarity is just a coincidence. The Italian word for cold is actually freddo.

In Spanish and Portuguese, the word for cold is frio. The Spanish way to say “I’m cold” is tengo frio, which literally means “I have cold”. The word frio, like the Italian word freddo, is derived from the Latin frigidus. The English word “frigid” is derived from the same Latin root, as is the refrigerator brand name Frigidaire. However, the English word “freeze”, which sounds somewhat like the Spanish word frio, is not directly related, because “freeze” came from Old English rather than Latin.

Because the Spanish words for hot and cold are caliente and frio, the hot and cold water faucets in a bathroom or kitchen are often labeled C and F. This can be surprising to an English speaker who opens the C faucet, expecting to get cold water. However, sometimes the water faucets in Latin America are labeled H and C, indicating that the plumbing fixtures were actually manufactured for the U. S. market. Even in this case, the C faucet is usually the hot water, because C is assumed to stand for caliente. But in this situation, what do Spanish speakers assume the H stands for? Perhaps the best match is the word helado, which means “icy” or “frozen”.

The French word for “cold” is froid, derived from the same Latin root as the Spanish word frio. In English we sometimes use the French phrase sang froid, literally meaning “cold blood”. In English, it can also be spelled as a single word, “sangfroid”. To have sangfroid means to have the ability to stay calm in a difficult or dangerous situation. It is quite common for the main character in a movie or TV show to possess an amazing degree of sangfroid, which is part of what makes that character seem heroic to us.

That concludes our exploration of words connected to “hot” and “cold”. A new chapter in the Word Connections series will appear in The Philipendium approximately every three weeks.

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