Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 8, 2018

They’re Piping Hot! But How Hot is “Piping?”

There you are, sitting down to breakfast. Your private chef enters the breakfast room (which you, of course, have) bearing a basket holding something that smells wonderful wrapped in the sort of colorful cloth personal chefs wrap baked goods in. At my place it’s a clean dish towel, but your chef will have whatever’s the linen item de rigeur.

With a flourish she sets the basket on the table, unfolds the cloth and carefully lifts a perfectly-crafted fresh muffin with her serving tongs and sets it on your plate.

MV_1045_PumkMuffins (640x480)

“Piping hot chocolate chip pumpkin muffins. Buon appetito!” she says, and withdraws to begin drawing up the day’s luncheon menu.

You eye the muffin, sniff the aroma wafting off it, and lift it toward you, anticipating a tasty breakfast treat. Halfway to your mouth, your hand stops. You give that bit of bakery goods another look and ponder.

Why yes, this muffin is hot. But why is it “piping hot?”

The very same thing happened at breakfast at Rancho Retro recently — except for the breakfast room, private chef, wicker basket and tongs portions.

Rather than leave you pondering there with your hot muffin cooling quickly, I’ll explain as briefly as possible, and then let you eat while I elaborate.

“Piping hot” has some years on it. It’s not advertising hype invented for a marketing campaign in recent times. It’s been around since English was Middle English, late in the 14th century.

You’ve probably figured it out. Extremely hot food is as hot as something sizzling in a pan over high heat, making a sound that might — to the imaginative — resemble the tootling of pipes. It’s an odd example of metonymy in which the sound of something hot is used to describe a hot object. Unusual, but memorably graphic. So memorable, in fact, that we’ve kept using the phrase for so many hundreds of years that we’ve lost sight of the original association. “Piping hot” now simply means really hot.

Go ahead and start eating your muffin if you wish. A brief observation.

When I went to find out how the phrase one of us used that morning came about, it was easy to find both the meaning as well as its first recorded use in English. As with many other Middle English words, the first recorded instance was in a collection of stories titled, The Canterbury Tales.

The Tales runs about 12,000 lines, a work of considerable size. Chaucer was highly literate and well educated. He was also working in a time from which our records of the language are limited. His work was enormously popular, and survived in multiple copies and editions. We’re fortunate to have it, because he was writing English during a time of radical change in the language. He, himself, was an innovator, and almost certainly coined some of the words and phrases. More important is the fact that he recorded the language being spoken at the time, capturing innumerable words for the first time.

Chaucer wrote a large number of works in addition to the Tales. All told, his manuscripts record approximately 2,000 English words for the first time. “Piping” and “piping hot” are among them.

Here’s Chaucer’s use of “piping hot” in line 193 of “The Miller’s Tale,” rendered in modern English:

“Wafers piping hot out of the glede (coals).”

If one’s in the habit of looking up word derivations in the Oxford English Dictionary, Chaucer pops up repeatedly. It was no surprise to encounter him again, but always a pleasure.

Buon appetito!

© Brad Nixon 2018. Piping hot muffin and coffee photo © M. Vincent 2018, used by kind permission. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1971.


Responses

  1. Ha, I knew this one, thanks to my (now retired) language tutor over at worldwidewords.org. I wasn’t particularly convinced by the metaphor, but then, perhaps just I’m listening to the wrong sort of pipes…

    But damn, now I’m hungry and lusting for some steaming baked comestibles

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you. I doubt the sound of things cooking in a pan sounded much different 600 years ago, nor pipes. Hope you find something tasty to snack on.

      Like

    • I did mean to mention that if you’ve come over all peckish and find the bakery’s place of purveyance bereft of toothsome treats, the National Cheese Emporium just down the street has a wide selection of delectable fermented curd.

      Like

  2. Thank you for the interesting explanation about the meaning of ‘piping hot’ – a phrase I use frequently but had never thought about its origins. Differences in English and American English also fascinate me, one language but many variations. For example, you mention the muffins covered in a dish towel whilst we would say a tea towel!

    Liked by 1 person

    • In our house, “tea towels” came out for parties. I never considered whether my grandmother brought that phrase from England or if it’s simply classier because — by definition in the American mind of an earlier era — English things ARE classier. We assume the Queen has tea towels, of course.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My Swedish grandmother, fresh from the old country, used both phrases: dish towel and tea towel. Whether she spoke English when she got here, I don’t know: but she was bilingual and always spoke Swedish to Grandpa or her friends when we children were to be excluded.

        So: I’m wondering if the difference wasn’t functional. The dish towel was used to wipe dishes in the kitchen, but as I recall, the towel that was flipped over the spooner, creamer, sugar bowl, and butter that stayed on the table in case someone wanted a cup of coffee or a little nosh always was a ‘tea towel.’ We learned to embroider tea towels, but dish towels were plain.

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      • That’s the distinction that prevailed in my house, but Little Miss Traveller suggests that were we in England, we’d be drying the dishes with a tea towel, and our world of expression just opened a crack wider. Thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Perhaps it’s the difference between tea and coffee cultures!

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      • I think, yes, that seems reasonable, but it’s always risky to speculate about the origin of words and phrases — which you know full well. It’s an enormously complex world with untold number of influences. Okay, now I have to look into it.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting. I did not know the origin of the phrase, “piping hot.” Interesting that it goes back to Chaucer–which I haven’t read since high school!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps you’ll return to it once you’ve finished your mammoth project of reading through the library!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Or more likely–run into it during the read through!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. You lucky dog! What a start to a day! Yes, life is rough here in southern Cal. This morning it’s in the high 70s, clear skies, nice gentle light of a fall sun.

    But I digress. Let’s get to the point. Isn’t saying “piping hot” like saying “very pregnant?” I mean, what does the adjective really add to the meaning? Is piping hot hotter than very hot but less hot than scalding hot? Is there a scale of “hot?”

    Piping may be more colorful maybe, but essentially redundant. Or not?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ok, here’s another one for you. My wife and I were just texting about apple pie. Then she wrote “You’re the apple of my eye.”

    Where does that strange association come from? Unless you’re Magritte, how do you get an apple into an eye, or exchange an eye for an Apple?

    Like

    • As I recall, there was a time when the pupil of the eye was thought to be a round, solid object: like an apple.

      Like

      • A new one to me. FYI, LaBoheme is a trained researcher, writer, skilled in using language. I think we should give him the assignment of tracking this one down. He received his English degree from the same department, same day as both The Counselor and I, and has only bolstered his research ability since then!

        Liked by 1 person

    • See my response to Shoreacres. I think you have the skills to find THIS one!

      Like

  6. Chew on this one: would you eagerly drink coffee or tea that was hot? Would you also eagerly touch a stovetop burner that was hot? What’s the difference? A matter of “degree?”

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    • Implies the answer to your earlier question. You don’t tell a child not to touch the stove because it’s piping hot. 600 years of custom have associated concepts of welcome, cheerful warmth with the phrase. You might say it’s sizzing hot, dangerously hot, or, at the edge of language for a 2 year old or for a U.S. president: BAD hot.
      We need those descriptive degrees. Pregnancy is a state and has two modes, on or off. Yet, we’re perfectly capable of looking at a woman in the latter stages of her term and saying, “man, she’s extremely pregnant.” She’s just as pregnant as the woman in her first trimester who barely shows, but we’re demonstrating the distinction between affect and effect. This is, without a doubt, the subject for an entire seminar in a course toward a PhD. in Rhetoric. Not my beat. Literature is still the apple of my eye.

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  7. Try as I might, I’m having trouble hearing the sound of pipes from my stove. Of course, it could be that our pans are quite different from those of Chaucer’s time. It is an interesting history. I’d always assumed ‘piping hot’ was just another of those phrases from c.1960s home ec, where everything had to have an adjective attached to make it sound more appealing: e.g. crispy bacon, creamy potatoes, feather-light meringue.

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    • I actually was guessing 1920s-ish advertising in the same vein. Let us NEVER forget the smooth, tasty male voice in those TV commercials for Kraft Velveeta Cheese, etc. But, up crops ol’ Geoff, once again. Good thing he bothered to write this stuff down. He had an excellent ear.

      Liked by 1 person


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