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A phrase has started to be used somewhat frequently over the past few years: "hot mess".

I have heard it in professional journalism (albeit, admittedly, mostly entertainment and/or gossip journalism).

There seems to be some confusion over what it means, though. Here are some of the varying commonly held definitions:

  • A person who is seemingly emotionally or mentally unbalanced who yet remains alluring, esp. one whose unbalance derives from social debauchery (excessive partying)
    • Or one such who does not remain alluring
  • A person who is disheveled who yet remains alluring
    • Or one such who does not remain alluring
  • An item that is dizzyingly chaotic in appearance
  • A situation or incidence that is extraordinarily bad

Is this an older phrase that has gained new life, or has it come into being in the last decade? If the latter, what was the original definition?

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Never heard of this in my life. –  tchrist Jul 2 '13 at 18:23
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3 Answers

According to Wiktionary, the "figurative" usage of hot mess is...

(slang, idiomatic, chiefly southern US) A person, thing, or situation in a state of pitiful disarray.

Which I think is fairly transparently derived from the literal sense...

(military) A warm meal, usually cooked in a large pot, often similar to a stew or porridge; or, service of such a heated meal to soldiers.

It may not be too fanciful to suppose it also has overtones of...

mess of pottage - something valueless or trivial or of inferior value
used esp. of something accepted instead of a rightful thing of far greater value

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That harkens back to when Southern (US) folks referred to cooking a "mess o' something" as parodied in this penultimate episode of the US sitcom, the Golden Girls: youtu.be/ErmygcbqYC0 –  Kristina Lopez Jul 2 '13 at 19:28
@Kristina: OED says of mess of pottage that it's alluding to the biblical story of Esau's sale of his birthright (Genesis 25:29–34), does not occur in the Authorized Version of the Bible (1611), although it is found in this context as early as c1452 (see quot.). It appears in the heading of Chapter 25 in the Bibles of 1537 and 1539, and in the Geneva Bible of 1560. So it certainly goes back considerably further than Southern (US) folks. –  FumbleFingers Jul 2 '13 at 21:00
This makes sense given the use of "mess" or "mess hall" to refer to a cantine. –  vidget Jul 3 '13 at 17:05
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Hot mess has been in the British vocabulary for at least 40 years as a slang term for diarrhea. I remember my father using it when I was young.

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hot mess When ones thoughts or appearance are in a state of disarray but they maintain an undeniable attractiveness or beauty. (UD)

Mess n; hot adj.

What a mess1! but still hot2!

1A dirty or untidy state of things or of a place: "she made a mess of the kitchen/ of herself".

2I. One who is: a. gorgeous b. pretty c. beautiful d. cute e. attractive (UD)

"She just woke up. Was partying all night. Man, what a hot mess, I couldn't take my eyes off her!"

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I've never seen this used to emphasize the “hot,” only the “mess” (like the Wiktionary definition and several of the other Urban Dictionary senses). But my experience is a small sample size. –  Bradd Szonye Jul 3 '13 at 7:26
@BraddSzonye Have you checked the UD (urban dictionary) entry? There are of course, some reservations on ELU about the authenticity of UD. However, the phrase is slang per se in any case and UD is naturally the right reference. –  Kris Jul 3 '13 at 11:18
Yes, which is how I knew about the other senses listed there. The definition you list is the most popular by far – but UD upvotes often correlate more to “coolness” than actual usage. –  Bradd Szonye Jul 3 '13 at 18:19
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