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?

  • 1
    Never heard of this in my life.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 2, 2013 at 18:23
  • FWIW, hot mess was added to OxfordDictionaries.com in August 2014 with the definition "n.: (US informal) a person or thing that is spectacularly unsuccessful or disordered"
    – wfaulk
    Commented Oct 11, 2015 at 20:04

6 Answers 6


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

  • 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 Commented Jul 2, 2013 at 19:28
  • 3
    @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. Commented Jul 2, 2013 at 21:00
  • This makes sense given the use of "mess" or "mess hall" to refer to a cantine.
    – vidget
    Commented Jul 3, 2013 at 17:05

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.


There was an episode of Arrested Development where the term "hot mess" was created with the currently popular US meaning. You even learn why the term was made. And around that time, this was not a popular term in the US. So, there is the possibility that episode is the root. Other TV shows have also been trying to pump new terms into pop culture. I think 30 Rock got a few wins there.

EDIT - from Arrested Development wiki: "The Bluth family frequently use the phrase 'hot mess' to describe each other in Season Four. [Although the term was defined and used in a previous season.] It gained popular usage after the designer Christian Siriano used the term on the fourth season of Project Runway."

  • Bizarre. How can this be the accepted answer? The term "hot mess" has been used in the southern United States for many, many years. And it's in popular lexicon, not some obscure phrase. It definitely predates whatever TV shows you're describing.
    – L0j1k
    Commented Nov 6, 2016 at 19:35

I just came across a video about "hot mess" on the Merriam-Webster website that notes an early usage with the modern meaning:

… 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.

That they credit to "P.J. Conlon in an 1899 journal". I found it in Google Books' copy of "Machinists Monthly Journal", Volume 11, page 195. It appears to basically be a letter to the editor, and he signs off from Sioux City. Assuming that's Iowa, that moves its origin pretty far from the "South" referenced in other answers.


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!"

  • 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. Commented Jul 3, 2013 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
    Commented Jul 3, 2013 at 11:18
  • 2
    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. Commented Jul 3, 2013 at 18:19

As i have always used it: "Mess" is a complicated failure condition, as in SNAFU, as in "all messed up," as in the Southern endearment to a goofy person, "you're such a mess." "Hot" is a situation to stay away from, as in a "hot potato," or a newspaper editor shying from a story that's "too hot to handle," because it will ruffle the wrong feathers. A "hot mess" is therefore a complicated problem that is dangerous to one's career. The rollout of the Obamacare website was a hot mess. The occupation of Iraq was a hot mess. The GM ignition switch debacle is a hot mess. Roger Bennett of "Men in Blazers" referred to the Mexican National Futbol team as a hot mess, because the team was in chaos, and fired three successive head coaches.

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