What’s in a word? The problem with ‘hot.’

Does anybody remember the Marx Brothers? Here’s 10 minutes of The Cocoanuts. The important part starts at 7:39 (but you may want to watch the whole thing).

For the uninitiated what Groucho is doing with Margaret Dumont is what was known as wooing. (I suppose he is really doing a parody of wooing.) That became flirting. Somewhere along the line that became hitting on and now, if I believe Tom Wolfe, and I tend to believe Tom Wolfe, it has devolved to hooking up. By the time we reached the hook up, the language accompanying seduction had descended to one word: hot. I must be getting old because I can’t see how you can convey anything or convince anyone with three letters that really mean the temperature is high.

A friend, talking about his high school reunion, told me his his wife was pleased they were the hottest couple there. I’m presuming he wasn’t talking about the ambient temperature. A coworker, talking about a date, was asked if he was hot. Again, this wasn’t about temperature.

But what are these people really saying and why is a vague word better than the right word? Did my friend’s wife mean that they had done a better job of avoiding the pitfalls of aging? Was she saying that they’d gained less weight? Lost less hair? Came across as 20-something rather than nearly 40? Who knows?

Or my coworker. Was she being asked if the date set her heart pit-a-pat? Or was she being asked if he was tall dark and handsome rather than a troll? Did he have a strong jaw line or no chin at all? Was he in shape or carrying around last year’s beer and chips on his waist? Who knows?

The post-modernists had one great insight: language is all we have to break interiority and connect with others but there’s always a gap between the speaker and the listener. The problem with hot is it’s a blank canvas. It can mean so many things that it in effect means nothing.

When Groucho says ‘Your eyes, your eyes, they shine like the pants of a blue serge suit’ it is a spoof of endlessly complimenting facial features. But everyone knows that if you want  a woman to know you’re really looking at her you say something nice and specific. ‘That’s a pretty dress’ or ‘I like your pearls’ or ‘You have a nice smile’ may sound lame but at least they’re unambiguous. ‘You look hot,’ outside a heat wave,  doesn’t sound involved, it just sounds ignorant.


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