meanings and history of the term ‘hot mess’


hot mess - ad for Inside Amy Schumer (2014)

This advertisement for the second season (2014) of comedienne Amy Schumer’s sketch show, Inside Amy Schumer, highlighted both the “hot” and “mess” sides of her personality — photograph: Jamey Welch Creative


The primary meanings of the noun mess are a serving of food, a course, a meal, a prepared dish of a specified kind of food. This word is from Anglo-Norman forms such as mes, mees and messe, and Old-French and Middle-French forms such as mes, mès and mez (Modern French mets), in turn from post-classical Latin missum, what is put on the table, portion of food, course of a meal, a specific use of the accusative of missus, a sending, a dispatching, missus being the past participle of the verb mittere, to send (cf. English mission). (Similarly, the Anglo-Saxon noun sand, or sond, related to the verb send, literally meant the action of sending, that which is sent, and was used to denote a serving of food, a mess.)

(The French noun has become mets under the influence of the verb mettre, to put; it is now rather dated and translates the equally dated English word viands. From the Latin verb mittere, ecclesiastical Latin had the noun missa, which is the origin of English Mass and originally meant dismissal, from the last words of the service: Ite, missa est, literally, Go, it is the dismissal.)

The English noun mess was in particular used in the sense of a portion or serving of liquid or pulpy food such as milk, broth, porridge, boiled vegetables, etc. This gave rise, in the early 19th century, to the senses an unappetising, unpalatable or disgusting dish or concoction and, figuratively, an ill-assorted mixture of any kind, a situation or state of affairs that is confused or presents numerous difficulties. (This sense development is similar to that of hash – cf. to make a hash of something.)

The term hot mess originally denoted a hot dish of liquid or pulpy food. For example, The Evening Post (Dundee, Scotland) of 23rd June 1900 had:


Dr M‘Tavish, of Edinburgh, was something of a ventroloquist [sic], and it befel [sic] that he wanted a boy to assist in the surgery, who must necessarily be of strong nerves. He received several applications, and, when telling a lad what the duties were, in order to test his nerves, he would say, while pointing to a grinning skeleton, standing upright in a corner—“Part of your work would be to feed the skeleton there, and, while you are here, you might as well have a try to do so.” A few lads would consent to a trial, and receive a basin of hot gruel and a spoon. While they were pouring the hot mess into the skull the doctor would make his voice appear to proceed from the jaws of the bony customer, and gurgle out, “Br-r-gr-h-uh, that’s hot!” This was too much, and, without exception, the lads dropped the basin and bolted. The doctor began to despair of ever getting a suitable helpmate, until a small boy came, and was given the gruel and the spoon. After the first spoonful the skeleton appeared to say, “Gr-r-uh-r-hr, that’s hot!” Shovelling the scalding gruel as fast as ever, the lad rapped the skull, and impatiently retorted, “Weel, jist blaw on it, ye auld bony!” The doctor sat down and fairly roared, but he engaged the lad.

The Sheffield Daily Telegraph (Yorkshire) of 7th February 1865 explained how a captain of the merchant service put an end to the excessive consumption of grog on board his ship:

By the commander’s direction, coffee and cocoa were substituted for the grog, a hot ‘mess’ of these beverages being provided, with the biscuit and meat, at the conclusion of every watch.

The term hot mess also denoted a hot mixture of ingredients cooked or eaten together. For example, The Montrose, Arbroath, and Brechin Review, and Forfar and Kincardineshire’s Advertiser (Scotland) of 16th July 1852 published “an extract of a letter from one of the soldiers who went out in her Majesty’s steam-frigate Megæra, dated Bear’s Farm, Kaffraria [in present-day South Africa], to his brother in Forfarshire”, in which this soldier writes that he

managed, after an hour and a-half’s cooking, to bring in a nice hot mess of stewed beef and boiled rice.

The term has come to mean an uncomfortable, difficult or challenging situation or state of affairs. The earliest instance that I have found is from The Blackburn Standard (Lancashire) of 20th March 1867, which reported that during the weekly meeting of the Board of Guardians was discussed the spiritual ministration at the Workhouse:

Mr. Durham intimated that he was not disposed to give way. He had been in these “rows” before. He remembered, on one occasion getting his fingers into a very hot mess with Father Sharples; but, he added, “I managed him.”

In American English, hot mess has taken the sense of something or someone that is emphatically a mess, i.e., that is in extreme confusion or disorder, perhaps under the influence of hot in the sense of intense. This is first recorded in Strikes, by P. J. Conlon, published in the Monthly Journal of the International Association of Machinists (Chicago, Illinois) of April 1899:

The result of a strike is generally governed by public opinion. It is therefore the tactics of the employer to at once rush into print with an ex parte statement of the cause of the strike, and, if possible, poison the minds of the public against the workmen. But if the dear public would only stop to consider the seriousness of the affair to the average worker and dwell upon the fact that his income has been cut off, and his little children and wife suffer with the workman. That before submitting to such a condition there must have been something radically wrong with the conditions under which he was working. I say if they would only stop to consider this before forming an opinion perhaps the wage-earners might win; but no, they believe everything they see in the newspapers. If the newspaper says the sky is painted with green chalk that is what goes. Verily, I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.

Probably under the influence of hot in the sense of sexually attractive, the following shade of meaning has recently appeared in American English: a disorganised, dishevelled or self-destructive person that is at the same time a source of peculiar fascination. The American author, essayist and journalist Meghan Daum (born 1970) explained it in The ‘hot mess’ of politics, published in the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) of 15th December 2011:

A delightfully useful and versatile term has been floating around a lot lately: “hot mess.” Usually it refers to a person, often (but not always) a woman, whose behavior is exceedingly self-destructive but who remains exceedingly compelling nonetheless. (Type “hot mess” into Google and names such as Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Charlie Sheen make a strong showing.)
On the surface, hot mess is derogatory, not to mention a nifty way of shaming and objectifying someone at the same time. But the fact that this coinage has gained traction suggests more than an abundance of blogospheric photos showing miniskirted, underwearless starlets stepping a little too widely out of cars. It also suggests that we Americans might have a surprisingly high tolerance — maybe even a secret affinity — for chaotic personality types.

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