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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

hot mess

(2010’s | journalese | “siren”)

How quickly this phrase has cropped up! It feels that way, but it’s been around for a long time. The phrase dates back to a time when “mess” meant “meal (service),” especially for soldiers. On good days, the troops got a “hot mess.” That hasn’t disappeared entirely, but it’s highly specialized, even in phrases like “mess of victuals” (if any young people are reading this, that word is pronounced “vittles”). At least in American English, “mess” has thoroughly staked out its meaning: state of clutter, filth, or chaos, and even if one refers to a dish or a lunch as a mess, we hear “sloppy” before we hear “meal.” A good history of this phrase on time.com reveals that “hot mess” has been in use for at least a hundred years to mean “unusually bad situation,” and that meaning definitely remains in play.

Somewhere around 2005, you started hearing “hot mess” applied to persons, a mutation that has established itself rapidly and decisively. At first, the phrase was used to denote a very attractive but emotionally unstable person, someone who gets into at least minor trouble and makes life difficult for everyone around. Britney Spears was an early avatar; several sources credit television programs “Project Runway” (ca. 2008) and “Arrested Development” (ca. 2013) with popularizing the term. Today, the predominant meaning seems to be a watered-down version of that: disheveled, attractive woman (usually), attractive either despite or because of the dishevelment. I regard that as the predominant meaning — and so does Urban Dictionary; among 62 definitions, it has by far the most thumbs-ups. But it may also refer to an unattractive and unfashionable person, or someone unkempt without redeeming qualities, in which case one might say “I looked a hot mess” (reminiscent of an older expression, “sweaty mess”). “Hot mess” may apply to anything hazardous (hot as in too hot to handle). It has sexual and excretory uses that I probably don’t need to explain. The sheer number and persistence of competing meanings drives the instability that makes this expression worth watching. My own sense is that television has won, and the fashion-jargon definition — attractive, disheveled person — will win out over time, if it hasn’t already. But I’m not sure which of the other senses will disappear.

The mutation of meaning constitutes another case of an idiom misunderstood because we’ve lost sight of older meanings of words and try to make sense of an expression in terms of modern vocabulary. We hear “hot” to mean attractive (rather than dangerous, although a “hot mess” may be dangerous) and “mess” to mean “disaster”; glue them together and you get either of our recent definitions. In this case, the retreat to the literal seems less damaging than in the case of my favorite example, “beg the question,” or even “dress down” and “ramp up.”

Thanks to Liz and Adam from Queens, two of my most faithful correspondents, who proposed this week’s expression independently in the past month, so its time has come. Hope I did it justice.

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