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The Word

Heated debate

Why shouldn’t a temperature be ‘warm’?

By Jan Freeman
January 31, 2010

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When the weatherperson predicts “warmer temperatures,” do your usage antennae quiver? Mine either - but some people do have a problem with such expressions. It’s a rare peeve, but a couple of weeks ago it popped up again, like a dormant virus newly revived and ready to spread.

The complaint appeared in a Montreal Gazette language column by Mark Abley, who had opened the floor to readers that week. One of them objected to the practice of TV forecasters who “speak of ‘warm,’ ‘mild,’ and ‘cold’ temperatures, rather than high, medium, and low ones.” Temperature is an index of heat or cold, he said, not something that can itself be “warm” or “cold.”

That’s not the only argument against “cooler temperatures” and the like. Bill Walsh addressed the point in his 2000 usage book, “Lapsing Into a Comma,” under the entry slow-speed chase. “The O.J. Simpson freeway parade was a low-speed chase, not a slow-speed chase. The concept of speed is inherent in the words slow and fast, so something is either slow or low-speed, either fast or high-speed. Other examples of this kind of redundancy include delicious taste, hot temperatures, and beautiful-looking.”

All very logical - but neither line of reasoning has made a dent in our actual usage. The first argument falters because temperature is not a technical word being misapplied by weather folks; it’s a general word adopted to a specific purpose. In the 16th century, says the Oxford English Dictionary, temperature could mean the act of tempering something, or “a middle course, a compromise,” or a person’s disposition or “temperament” - among other things. Even as a weather word, its first sense was not “degree of heat” but the relative mildness - temperateness - of a climate.

So when science adopted “temperature” as a measure of heat, in the 17th century, English speakers were already used to hearing the word in other senses as well. There was apparently no taboo against describing a temperature as hot, warm, or cold: A 1743 treatise on thermometers, quoted in the OED, writes of a system that “conceive[s] the middle temperature of the air as neither hot nor cold.”

Other scientists followed suit: A 1796 chemistry book says therapeutic water needs only to be “an hotter temperature than common water.” An 1841 medical journal speaks of the “cooler temperature of the human body.” And Charles Lyell, in “Principles of Geology” (1850 edition), writes of “a warmer temperature having prevailed in the eras of the Eocene, Miocene, and Pliocene formations.”

The second charge, that “warmer temperatures” is redundant, is no easier to prosecute. Yes, “temperatures will be hot” is redundant in the sense Walsh points out: The word hot already implies “temperature.” But English has never banned such redundancy, especially in the spoken language. Taste and fashion may outlaw some such expressions, but many others are our daily companions.

We’ve all been alerted, for instance, to the redundancy of “ATM machine” and “PIN number” (though we still may find them useful). But who wants to ban “12 noon” and “12 midnight”? (You don’t really need the 12.) “Faster speeds” has the same problem, but surely it’s standard English. Should we ban hairstyles of longer lengths, children of younger ages, servings in medium sizes?

In the case of weather terms, in fact, limiting ourselves to the “precise” language of high, medium, and low temperatures would leave us knowing less. We have a wealth of temperature adjectives - frigid, chilly, cool, mild, balmy, sizzling - all attuned to our local climate and our expectations with a subtlety that a forecast of “medium-high temperatures” can’t match. Call such phrases unscientific, call them redundant, avoid them if you like - but don’t imagine that English has ever considered them sins against the spirit of the language.

. . .

WHICH FORK? David Devore e-mailed recently to ask about a quote in a New York Times story on early bird specials: “It’s a great way to try a new restaurant without forking over a lot of money.”

To Devore, forking over is what a robber demands: Fork over the cash! - and paying a bill should be forking out. But my dictionaries treat fork over, fork out, and fork up as synonyms, all meaning “to hand over”; there may be local or individual preferences, but officially it’s OK to fork over, out, or up.

Some commentators give fork over a rakish past, deriving it from the old thieves’ slang to fork (someone), meaning to pick a pocket using two stiff fingers. But the OED treats the fork over family as simple extensions of the usual verb: you fork up a garden, fork over a mutton chop, fork out the rent. The word implies reluctance on the part of the forker, for whatever reason, but not necessarily coercion or threat by the forkee.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).