More popcorn?

Dear Word Detective: I just read your article about “lukewarm” and you gave “tepid” as one of the synonyms (or actually the Oxford English Dictionary did). I’ve used that word since I first heard it from The Naked Chef, where Jamie Oliver was making bread and said that one needs a pint of tepid water. I find it a very nice word, but don’t know where it came from. — Topi Linkala.

Wow, cooking shows. I’ve never watched one. But I’ve always wondered how that works. Is the idea that you take notes during the show? Or are you supposed to record it and then play it back in your kitchen while you follow along? Maybe if I were into cooking in the first place I’d be able to retain what the host says and does, but watching people chop things makes me nervous. In fact, cooking in general makes me nervous. I usually cook by hitting “Start” on the microwave and running out of the room.

“Tepid” is a nice word, isn’t it? It’s not threatening like “icy” or “piping,” let alone scary like “scalding” or “boiling” or “sizzling.” Maybe it’s because I have poor eye-hand coordination, but I prefer to stick to food that can’t actually, y’know, hurt me. And I’d prefer that my obituary not include the words “bizarre fajita accident.” So to me “tepid,” meaning “moderately warm,” is, as Goldilocks found, “just right.”

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) does indeed employ “tepid” in its definition of “lukewarm,” and, logically, lists “lukewarm” as a direct synonym in its definition of “tepid.” The two words are, in fact, nearly identical in meaning, with the only shade of difference in usage being that “tepid” is more often applied to liquids than to solids (“Let the Water stand in the Sun till it grow tepid,” 1691).

As I explained in that column last year, “lukewarm” represents 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”). “Luke” came from the Old English word “hleowe,” which meant, amazingly, “warm,” and which in turn seemed to be rooted in an Indo-European root word that meant “weakly warm.” Yes, folks, it’s “warm” all the way down.

I wish that “tepid” had a more interesting history than “lukewarm,” but it is, if anything, even more boring. “Tepid” comes directly from the Latin “tepidus,” meaning (I can’t stand it) “lukewarm,” which was a form of the Latin verb “tepere,” meaning “to cover in purple polka dots.” Sorry. It really just meant “to be warm.” Wake me when this is over.

“Tepid” first appeared in English in the early 15th century in its literal sense of “slightly warm,” not long after “lukewarm” appeared in the late 14th century meaning the same darn thing. Both words, however, became infinitely more useful shortly after their appearance when they both developed figurative uses. Unfortunately, the figurative senses of the two words are, quelle surprise, largely identical. By 1522, “lukewarm” was being applied to people who were thought to have few strong feelings, passions or interests. To be “lukewarm” on a subject was to be indifferent or apathetic about it (“Some, that called him the lukewarme Doctour, and likened him to milke from the Cowe,” 1593). Similarly, by 1513, “tepid” was used as a label for people who seemed to lack any real interest or conviction in much of anything (“Some tepid little man, vain and sensitive — the kind of man who broods,” Agatha Christie, 1941).

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