In warm, humid climates: If you take a container of something (say, a can of Coke or a jar of mayonnaise) and leave it at room temperature, the outside becomes wet with droplets of water— sometimes **dripping wet*.

I have heard this called sweating. However, knowing something about how water vapor works, I know that this is not sweating; you might say it is the reverse of sweating.

I know the water that forms is called condensation, because water vapor has been cooled enough to make it condense out of the air.

But I wonder how one could most concisely describe what the can or jar is "doing" (verb) to get that way, or to describe the state (adjective) of the container after this has happened. Do I have to say something like "It attracts condensation. " ? or "It becomes wet. "?

Airplane wings are said to ice up when it is cold enough to that ice forms.

But I never heard watering up (except as an expression for crying); I have heard tearing up which is based on intransitive tearing http://i.word.com/idictionary/tear . But none of these is an accurate metaphor for what the container does, as the moisture comes from outside, not inside.

So it seems the sweating and tearing metaphors harken back to a time when hydrology was misunderstood

I don't mean dew, which is formed as the ambient air gradually cools to the dew point; I mean the water that forms when warm air encounters a cooled object. Other objects don't get wet; only the cold one.

Nor do I mean fog up, which as far as I know is used only in reference to glass surfaces (e.g. eyeglasses or a mirror" becoming covered with such tiny droplets that they become difficult or impossible to see "through".

Is there some single word, phrasal verb or set phrase to refer to this common phenomenon accurately?

  • You're right. The water is not coming from inside the can, so the phenomenon cannot accurately be called "sweating".
    – Marconius
    Jul 23, 2015 at 23:03
  • 1
    A small technicality. Dew forms in just the same way as the condensation you descibe: humid air is cooled to its dew point, when water condenses on the cool surface. There is no difference whatsoever. I am sorry that this elementary physics does not answer the original question.
    – Anton
    Jul 23, 2015 at 23:03
  • So would this be localized dew? I have seen it on the big tin cans we call cars. Is "dew", in reference to cars, idiomatic? Jul 23, 2015 at 23:38
  • 6
    If you want to know what the phenomenon is commonly called you're in the right place, and the term is "sweating" (at least in the US). If you want to know what process causes this phenomenon, you should be asking in Physics SE, not here.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 23, 2015 at 23:47
  • As @Anton says, It is technically dew, which forms when the surface temperature is below the dewpoint. And sweating is a perfectly appropriate term for it.
    – stevesliva
    Jul 24, 2015 at 0:45

6 Answers 6


The term is sweat. From http://www.thefreedictionary.com/sweat

  1. To collect moisture in small drops from the air, as a cold water pipe.

There is no requirement in English for the different possible meanings of a word to reflect an underlying consistency. In this case, the appearance of water droplets on a surface when the surrounding air is hot produces the same word, whether the moisture is produced from the interior or exterior of the object.

For that matter, there is no requirement for alternate meanings not to contradict each other - "cleave" is a classic example.

It's true that the can does not perspire, but that simply means that synonyms are not exactly the same.

  • So sweating is (nearly)an auto-antonym? In one sense, it cools a body down; in the other, it heats a body up? Now that I think of it, I remember long ado doing "sweat soldering" (bonding copper pipe to copper fittings with solder, by heating the fitting with a torch to the point where it melted the solder.) Again, the moisture is from the outside, but it consists of a substance that goes from a solid to a liquid state, rather than from gaseous to liquid. Interesting. Jul 24, 2015 at 1:38
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    It's only an auto-antonym if you pay attention to its effect on the subject body. Otherwise, it is a consistent description of an external phenomenon - the formation of droplets on a body under warm conditions. Jul 24, 2015 at 1:45
  • Cleave is not a great example here because the contradictory senses actually belong to two different words with different etymologies that happen to have converged onto identical pronunciation and spelling. The past tenses are still different, though. Otherwise I wholeheartedly and emphatically agree with this answer.
    – phoog
    Jul 24, 2015 at 2:36
  • @phoog - Heh. Well, I didn't say it was a great example - only that it is a classic one. What's a better one? Jul 24, 2015 at 2:38
  • @WhatRoughBeast perhaps not better, because the opposite sense has arisen more from misunderstanding than anything else: comprise, whose original meaning is "be composed of" but which is now commonly used to mean "compose.". The best example would be something where the outward appearance of, or other superficial resemblance between, two unrelated things has led to the name of one thing being used to describe the other.
    – phoog
    Jul 24, 2015 at 2:44

Someone may have hexed you with the curse of literal mindedness. Your local faith healer may be able to help. This is a figurative use of the word "sweat," so the thermodynamics isn't an issue. The beads of moisture on a cold container look like beads of sweat on my skin, so applying the word to the container conjures an image. If I said, "I flew to my beloved's side," would you complain on aerodynamic grounds?

I think this from the novel Proud Flesh by William Humphrey is a particularly nice use:

On coming out of the air-conditioned house the Sheriff popped out with sweat like a cold can of beer.

The man is the one who actually sweats, but in a reversal, he's compared to the cold can which can't (no pun intended).

  • Just to be pedantic ;-). 'Flew' in your sentence is not a metaphor. It means to move quickly. Old English fleon, flion "fly from, avoid, escape --- as opposed to Old English fleogan "to fly, take flight, rise into the air". They are two different verbs that converged in spelling. Jul 24, 2015 at 0:30
  • @chasly from UK: I think that was the point. Words can have several different meanings, perhaps from different linguistic derivation, perhaps from metaphors...
    – jamesqf
    Jul 24, 2015 at 1:04
  • You're right, deadrat; I am hexed with the curse of literal-mindedness. A scientist wouldn't be caught dead saying a cold can sweats, so I was hoping there might be a better word. Jul 24, 2015 at 1:42
  • @BrianHitchcock What makes you think a scientist wouldn't say that a cold can sweats? Unless, of course, he'd caught the hex. And you've found an excellent alternative -- "beaded up." Now, do you think Humphrey made the right choice?
    – deadrat
    Jul 24, 2015 at 2:58
  • Humphrey is a novelist, certainly free to use whatever verbal imagery suits the narrative. There is no "right choice" fof terminology in fiction. Clearly it is a common choice.I never disputed that; in fact I postulated it. Jul 24, 2015 at 6:12

mist up phrasal verb

if a piece of glass mists up, or if something mists it up, it becomes covered with very small drops of water so that you cannot see through it

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online

  • Why didn't I think of that? I have voted you up.
    – Anton
    Jul 23, 2015 at 23:10
  • Hadn't thougt of that either. So the can fogs up, then mists up, then forms dew, then forms bigger droplets, then the droplets drip? Sounds like what we call weeping in regard to windows. Oops – there's that crying metaphor again! Jul 23, 2015 at 23:43

Technically, you can say the cold glass dehydrated the air around it:

dehydration reaction: an elimination (condensation) reaction in which the small molecule that is removed [in this case, from the air] is water

but that would sound pretty lame, I think. Really, the jar isn't doing anything. There is no active process the jar is participating in. The ice inside, and the air with its water vapor outside the glass are doing everything.

The jar is simply collecting condensation, sweating, or beading up.

  • 1
    I like beading up. Will keep that in mind as I wait for other answers. Jul 23, 2015 at 23:50
  • So, I want to choose "beading up", but your main suggestion, "dehydrated", has been rebutted. Could you please offer "beaded up" separately, so I can choose it? Jul 27, 2015 at 7:22
  • @BrianHitchcock - It has? Huh. To dehydrate is to remove water. That's pretty much what condensation is. Anyway, I'm not really a person to offer two answers to one question. If you like, feel free to edit it out. Jul 27, 2015 at 7:29
  • I didn't say it had been refuted, only that it had been rebutted. And you yourself said "dehydrated" sounded "pretty lame", and offered three other alternatives. I like one of them, beaded up. I had hoped to give you credit for having offered the accepted answer. Shall I answer it myself, so that I can accept? Jul 27, 2015 at 8:30
  • @BrianHitchcock - Whatever, it's your acceptance. Jul 27, 2015 at 15:37

We say water "condenses" on the can and that water is called "condensation." You can say the can helps the water to condense.

The can is dehumidifying the air, not dehydrating as a reader stated. Dehydration removes water from things, but we don't use that for the atmosphere, only for objects. This is why we say dehydrated food not dehumidified food, and why we have a device called a dehumidifier.

If you place a coke can in a humid room, after the can has absorbed all of the energy it is able to, we say that the can has reached a state of equilibrium...assuming you don't open it.


Honestly a can wouldn't be doing anything that could be described except for sitting somewhere. The action is all in the air changing form. You could say the can looks condensed or looks like it's condensing.

  • A can of condensed soup is condensed, so there might be some confusion. Of course, cans of soup are usually kept at room temperature. But you're right, the can isn 't really doing anything other than cooling the air (note my quote marks above around "doing"); the air is doing something yet people call it sweating. perhaps I should give up on finding a verb; I still hope for an adjective or phrase. Jul 23, 2015 at 23:48

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