hot potato: Idiom Meaning and Origin

What does ‘hot potato’ mean?

An idiom meaning a controversial issue or situation that is difficult to handle, and often passed quickly from person to person to avoid dealing with it.

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The idiom "hot potato" is a commonly used expression in the English language. It is known to have originated in the mid-1800s. The idiom refers to a controversial or sensitive issue that is difficult to handle and often passed on from one person or group to another in order to avoid responsibility or blame. The metaphorical reference to a hot potato indicates the painful or uncomfortable nature of the topic, as well as the urgency to pass it on quickly.

While the exact origins of the idiom are unclear, it is believed to have been derived from the literal act of handling a hot potato. Potatoes, when freshly cooked, retain a high temperature and can cause burns if held for too long. The discomfort associated with holding a hot potato mirrors the discomfort associated with dealing with a difficult or controversial issue. This suggests that the idiom draws upon the common experience of physically handling a hot potato to convey a deeper meaning.

The idiom "hot potato" is commonly used in both informal and formal contexts. It can be used in various situations to describe topics or issues that are contentious, sensitive, or unpopular. The idiom is often employed in political discussions, where controversial policies or decisions are metaphorically likened to a hot potato being passed around among politicians, each attempting to avoid being held responsible. Similarly, it can be used in social or personal contexts to describe situations where individuals try to evade blame or accountability for a difficult situation.

The widespread usage of the idiom "hot potato" in the English language demonstrates its enduring relevance and recognition among native speakers. Its figurative meaning is easily understood and can effectively convey the concept of passing on a difficult or contentious issue. The idiom continues to be utilized in various mediums, including literature, journalism, and everyday conversations. Its simplicity and relatability contribute to its popularity and ubiquity in the English language.

The linguistic origin of this colloquial slang phrase is figurative.

In relation to the idiom "hot potato," there are several related idioms that convey similar meanings or concepts. One related idiom is "sore point." This idiom refers to a topic or issue that is especially sensitive or causes discomfort. It is similar to a hot potato in that it brings up uncomfortable emotions or memories and is best avoided in conversation.

Another related idiom is "above the fray." This idiom describes a person or group who chooses not to become involved in a contentious or heated debate. It is like passing on a hot potato by staying out of the argument and avoiding the potential discomfort or backlash.

Similarly, the idiom "can of worms" is related to "hot potato." It refers to a situation or topic that is complex or difficult to handle. Just like passing on a hot potato, opening a "can of worms" can lead to complications or difficulties that one would rather avoid.

"don't go there" is another related idiom. This phrase is often used as a warning or advice to avoid discussing a sensitive or controversial topic. It is similar to passing on a hot potato by advising someone not to touch or handle it, as it may cause discomfort or lead to conflict.

The idiom "bone of contention" also relates to "hot potato." It refers to an issue or topic that is the cause of a dispute or disagreement. Like passing on a hot potato, a "bone of contention" can create tension or conflict among individuals or groups.

The idiom "hot potato" is a well-established expression in the English language. Its metaphorical reference to a hot potato being passed on highlights the discomfort and urgency associated with these topics. While its precise origins remain uncertain, the idiom draws upon the common experience of physically dealing with a hot potato to convey a deeper meaning. The idiom is extensively employed in informal and formal contexts, particularly in politics and social interactions, as it effectively encapsulates the concept of evading responsibility or blame. Its enduring relevance and recognition among native English speakers reflect its continued significance in everyday communication. Ultimately, the idiom "hot potato" serves as a vivid reminder of the challenges and complexities inherent in dealing with contentious issues, leaving room for further exploration and interpretation.

Example usage

Examples of how the idiom hot potato can be used in a sentence:

  • 1. The controversial topic of climate change is a political hot potato.
  • 2. The CEO resigned, leaving the company's financial problems as a hot potato for the new leadership.
  • 3. The comedian made a joke that touched upon a sensitive subject and quickly realized he was holding a hot potato.

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