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shameless pleading

Lukewarm / Piping

The third most terrifying word in English: “bagpipes.”

Dear Word Detective: Why do I say my morning coffee, when I’ve gotten engrossed in my newspaper and forgotten the cup on my table, is “lukewarm”? Who is Luke, and why is he warm (or not)? And other days, when I home in straight on my cuppa, why do I find my coffee “piping” hot? What pipe, where? As a non-native English speaker, I’m continually amazed at the endless variety of anomalies that this animal called idiomatic use throws up! — Partha Sen Sharma.

Good question. As a non-native speaker of English, you’re probably more likely to notice such odd terms as “lukewarm” and idioms like “piping hot,” but I’d bet that not one in ten native English speakers could explain where either of those terms came from. And I’ll bet at least five out of ten have never even considered the question.

I’m a big fan of eponyms (words formed from proper names), so I’m a bit disappointed that there is no person named “Luke” behind “lukewarm.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “lukewarm” as “moderately warm; tepid,” and notes that it first appeared in print in English in the late 14th century. “Lukewarm” has also been used in a figurative sense since the 16th century to mean “lacking enthusiasm; indifferent” (“The lukewarm advocate avails himself of any pretense to relapse into … indifference,” 1771).

“Lukewarm” is actually simply a combination of “warm” with the somewhat older English adjective “luke” (or “lew”), which itself meant “warm” (meaning that “lukewarm” etymologically amounts to a redundant “warm-warm”). That “luke” or “lew” came from the Old English word “hleowe,” which meant, you guessed it, “warm,” and which in turn was probably derived from an Indo-European root word that meant “weakly warm.” It’s not very exciting when the explanation for a word is simply “that’s what it’s always meant,” but there’s not much we can do about it now.

“Piping hot,” meaning “very hot,” also dates back to the 14th century and has nothing to do with pipes of either the smoking or plumbing sort. It is, however, connected to the kind of musical pipes one finds in bagpipes and church organs as well as “pipe” in the sense of a flute or recorder. The initial sense of “piping” was “emitting a high-pitched whistling sound” or “wheezing,” though the modern sense of “very hot” appeared almost immediately. The explanation is actually rather neat. Something, especially food, is “piping hot” if it actually emits a whistling or sizzling sound on your plate (think fajitas, for instance). In the case of a hot beverage, the “piping” might be the sound of the kettle. “Piping” today is used almost exclusively in reference to food, but back in the 19th century it was not uncommon to read of a “piping hot day” in the summer. “Piping” has also been used since the late 16th century to mean “new, novel, fresh and exciting” (“At the post-office such a scene-picture … the new play, piping hot!”, Robert Browning, 1855).

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