Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Warming Down

Posted by Neal on September 20, 2004

Tuesday night:

Doug: I don’t want to kiss Adam goodnight! I don’t want to get what he has!
Doug’s mom: You’re not going to get what he has, you probably gave it to him. Now kiss your brother goodnight.

Thursday morning:
Doug has the same thing Adam had, but a worse case of it. He spends the day in our bed watching cartoons.

For half the day, he wouldn’t eat anything for fear he’d throw up, or that it would hurt his tongue and throat too much. But eventually, he broke down and agreed to have some chicken noodle soup, and lived on that for a couple of days.

During this time, I realized that Doug still had an unusual semantics for his temperature adjectives that I’d first noticed when he was two. I was bringing him a bowl of soup, with an ice cube on the side, since instead of just blowing on each spoonful until it’s cool enough, he usually wants an ice cube put in the bowl. When I put it on his tray, he said:

Let me see if it’s warm enough… OK, it’s warm enough; you can take away the ice cube.

For most speakers, that would be a complete non-sequitur. For most speakers, there are two poles on the temperature scale: hot and cold. Anything, no matter how cold, is said to be getting warmer (or hotter, if we’re talking high enough temperatures) if its temperature is moving toward the hot end of the scale. Even if it’s starting out cold and progresses only to cool, you have to say it’s getting warmer, or that it’s getting less cold if you want to emphasize that it’s not warm yet. But you can’t say it’s getting cooler. Likewise, anything, no matter how hot, is said to be getting cooler (or colder) if its temperature is moving toward the cold end of the scale. Even if it starts out hot and progresses only to warm, you have to say it’s getting cooler or less hot; warmer is out.

For Doug, though, a three-pole scale seems to be in operation. In addition to the poles of hot and cold, there is one for warm. Anything, whether hot or cold, is said to be getting warmer if its temperature is moving toward the warm pole. Thus, when his hot soup becomes merely warm, it has gotten warmer.

This semantics for scalar adjectives only seems to work for temperature, and even there, only for warm, not for cool. I haven’t heard Doug talking about his ice cream getting so cool that it dripped on his hand, for example. The idea of the warmest soup being the one closest to the Platonic ideal of warmness, and not simply the soup with the highest temperature, reminds me of sports commentators who say things like:

This is the most mediocre team I’ve ever seen.

Just once, I’d like to hear someone say that and mean, “This team is the closest to the midpoint between best and worst that I’ve ever seen!”

3 Responses to “Warming Down”

  1. Big Ben said

    The Japanese adjective “nurui”, usually translated as “lukewarm”, functions just like Doug’s “warm”. “Nuruku naru”, “to become warm”, is used both for hot things getting cool and cold things getting warm, although “nurui” usually implies that the thing is getting further from its optimal temperature.

  2. Blar said

    Runners talk about jogging a “warmup” before running a hard workout, and some say that they jog a “warmdown” after their workout. I’ve always thought that “warmdown” was a weird word and that the alternative term, “cooldown”, was more appropriate. But apparently, some runners think like Doug, at least when they’re using temperature metaphorically. (Their use of the metaphor is incomplete, though. Runners occasionally say that they’re “cold” when they haven’t been running, but I’ve never heard anyone use “hot” to describe how they are in the midst of a workout.)

  3. Anonymous said

    I’m not really following. Your little guy seems quite logical. The desired state is warm, so that’s what he thinks about.

    In all seriousness, I suspect he is not so much interested in soup temp as the ritual.

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