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When a person is suspected of doing something that is wrong, they are said to be in "hot water". Why? Did law breakers long ago have hot water thrown on them for their punishment? Were they dunked in hot water?

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

I am coming more and more to the opinion that it is fruitless to argue, or even speculate, about the "origin" of many idioms.

Obviously we can in principle find out when this expression was first recorded (we may or may not be able to do so in fact). But unless this first occurrence was in a context that makes it clear that the speaker was thinking about, say, cooking, then I suggest that we cannot know what image the speaker had in mind.

And even if that person who first used the expression had a particular image in mind, that doesn't mean that the people who heard it and used it themselves had the same image.

To me, the picture that "be in hot water" suggests is the old cartoon image of the explorer captured by "cannibal", tied up in a huge pot of water. But from the dates given by other replies, I suspect that the phrase is much older than that picture. (I may be wrong: perhaps that image goes back to the fifteenth century).

But that is just my picture. You can hear me use the expression, and understand it, even if you have quite a different picture. I suggest that this has always been the case, and that there is not and never has been a specific concrete image which the phrase recalled.

I would also note that both of the specific suggestions reported in other answers are unconvincing to me, as neither of them accounts for "in hot water".

Edit: the above applies to those idioms which are more or less transparent. There are others which are pretty well opaque (such as "kick the bucket", or "take a rain-check"), and it does make sense to discuss the semantic origin of these. There are no doubt examples which some of us will find transparent and others not.

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Although I'll respectfully disagree about the fruitlessness of speculation, I agree that none of the answers adequately address the "in" part of "in hot water". (I also have a similar mental image as you, while sharing your concern that such an image is unlikely to have been available in the 15th or 16th century.) –  Ben Hocking Jun 27 '11 at 15:02
    
I'll give +1 overall to your answer, since I feel it brings good points to discussion, even though I don't agree with parts. Especially 'You can hear me use the expression, and understand it, even if you have quite a different picture.' - this definitively does not work with pure idioms (and I would say this is the reason why pure idioms usually have an associated story - since they have to be taught, either by examples or through story; if through stories then they can be either pseudo-etymologies or real etymologies). –  Unreason Jun 28 '11 at 14:05
    
@Unreason: Agreed. Some idioms are not transparent, and you either have to know their specific origin, or learn them as an unanalysable chunk: for these, it is appropriate to discuss their origin. I'll edit the answer. –  Colin Fine Jun 28 '11 at 14:42
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All, I could find was:

This idiom means to be in big trouble or be in an embarrassing situation with someone. It originated in the early 1500s. It may refer to when you're cooking and you spill hot water or hot food. You would be in trouble. Hot water is definitely something you don't want to be in except in a hot bath! An example of how to use this is, "I was in hot water with Ms. Izenberg when I didn't do my homework."

etymonline gives:

hot water
c.1400, literal; 1530s in figurative sense of “trouble.”

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From the book, "A Hog on Ice":

Possibly the allusion was to the ancient way that unwelcome guests were sometimes warded off - by heaving a kettleful of boiling water, when available, upon troublesome intruders.

However, I do know for certain that it originated round about the sixteenth century

There's also this explanation, but I wouldn't place too much on it:

It originated in the early 1500s. It may refer to when you're cooking and you spill hot water or hot food. You would be in trouble.

One thing's for certain, it has been in used since the early 1500s.

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I think that kitchen has pretty good chance to be etymologically related. –  Unreason Jun 27 '11 at 12:01
    
Somehow, I doubt that reason, but please explain @Unreason, why does it seem more plausible? –  Thursagen Jun 27 '11 at 12:02
    
Usually idioms come from common phrase or a very impressive, extreme phrases. As eating is a basic need that was present during not only development of particular language, but during development of all languages, there are many idioms related to food and cooking. From top of my head: "The amplifier got fried", "I got burned", "That story sounds cooked", "We are in such a jam", etc.. For these reasons I chose the words - "it has pretty good chance to be related", however, I think that actually the burden is on you to justify why you "wouldn't place too much on it". –  Unreason Jun 27 '11 at 12:46
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The OED's first citation for hot water in the sense "trouble" is:

1537  Lisle Papers (P.R.O.) XI. 100  I can get no conserve dishes, for those that my Lady Fitzwilliam hath came out of Levaunt; howbeit, if they be to be had, I will have of them, or it shall cost me hot water.

Cost me hot water seems to have been a set phrase:

1593  G. Peele Edward I  it shall cost me hot water but thou shalt be King Edward's man

1640  T. Hooker The Soules Humiliation 38  Nay, the Lord knowes that my corruptions have cost me hot water, my heart hath beene exceedingly vexed with them

1654  E. Gayton Pleasant Notes Upon Don Quixote 79  this same search hath not cost me hot water (as they say)

My speculation: maybe hot water was a canonical example of something troublesome to procure (in the days before hot and cold running water)?

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