1

I stumbled upon this phrase in Urban Dictionary and was rather taken by surprise to know that it is a slang expression for a person who has died (or will die in the immediate future.)

Medical speak for recently dead.

Since UD is not the most reliable of sources(although I find it useful to understand slang usage), I tried to find the phrase elsewhere and got a Wikipedia entry under "List of expressions related to death"

(Euphemistic slang) To die.

Used frequently by talk radio icon Rush Limbaugh on The Rush Limbaugh Show, generally when a dictator or an avowed enemy of the United States has died. Originally used in his first book, The Way Things Ought to Be. See also Jargon of The Rush Limbaugh Show.

What I think...

Normal body temperature is 37°C. Comfortable Room temperature is around 20°C-25°C. If somebody "assumes room temperature", their body temperature has gone down, thereby indicating their death(?)

I decided to consult Ngram and I did get lot of usage results. However, they seem to be related with scientific experiments ("Experiment assumes room temperature" and so on...) rather than a slang phrase in English.

  • 2
    I have never heard this expression to mean this. And Urban Dictionary containing it as slang doesn't mean it's in widespread use. On the other hand, I don't live in an English speaking country, and I never listen to Rush Limbaugh's broadcasts... – Mr Lister Feb 24 '16 at 12:01
  • 6
    I don't think this is a common or widespread idiom, nor is it really divorced from the meaning of its constituent words (which points to a recent origin). If your body assumes -- that is, takes on, and so becomes -- room temperature, it is because it is no longer actively engaged in thermoregulation, and so by the inexorable laws of thermodynamics, loses heat until it comes into equilibrium with the prevailing ambient temperature. The only way this would happen for a homeothermic species like humans is through death (i.e. the cessation of metabolic processes designed to maintain body temps). – Dan Bron Feb 24 '16 at 12:56
  • @DanBron - Please post this as an answer. I am convinced that this is the only plausible explanation. – BiscuitBoy Feb 24 '16 at 13:15
  • 1
    @DanBron - Can I reproduce your comment as an answer, please? – BiscuitBoy Feb 26 '16 at 11:44
  • @BiscuitBoy Of course! Please do! – Dan Bron Feb 26 '16 at 12:11
3

Reproducing Dan Bron's wonderful comment as answer, since I feel that is the best plausible explanation.

I don't think this is a common or widespread idiom, nor is it really divorced from the meaning of its constituent words (which points to a recent origin). If your body assumes -- that is, takes on, and so becomes -- room temperature, it is because it is no longer actively engaged in thermoregulation, and so by the inexorable laws of thermodynamics, loses heat until it comes into equilibrium with the prevailing ambient temperature. The only way this would happen for a homeothermic species like humans is through death (i.e. the cessation of metabolic processes designed to maintain body temps)

  • Nicely done.... – user140086 Feb 27 '16 at 6:40
  • assuming room temperature without dying would make you a lizard or any other reptile, amphibian or fish! – user58319 Feb 27 '16 at 11:16
  • @user58319 Yes, which is what the clause about "homeothermic species like humans" was designed to capture. Homeothermic is just a fancy word for "warm-blooded" animal. – Dan Bron Feb 27 '16 at 12:12
1

The phrase "etymology" refers to single words, not phrases. In this case you might just ask where this phrase originated, and it sounds like you have answered your own question: "Rush Limbaugh".

I don't think that it is a popular expression – I've never heard it, anyway, in the context of implying that someone has died. I've only ever heard it in the context of questions about physics that say "Assume standard temperature and pressure" or words to that effect.

  • I have heard/read the expression a few times, though it's not common. – Hot Licks Feb 24 '16 at 13:17
1

The earliest match I could find for the expression "assume room temperature" as a euphemism for "die" does indeed involve Rush Limbaugh. From Jeffrey Yorke, "WGMS Transmitter Sold," in the Washington [D.C.] Post (June 27, 1989):

Last week he identified himself to listeners as "Rush 'Warmonger' Limbaugh," and then applauded six schools in Pasadena, Tex., that prohibited students from wearing peace symbols because school officials believed the symbols were the mark of Devil worshipers. Later in the same program, a listener asked Limbaugh if he was sorry to hear of the death of liberal journalist I.F. Stone. "I'm not sorry at all I.F. Stone assumed room temperature," he said.

The next-earliest instance (probably) is from Magnetic North Magazine (1989–1990?):

Now that Emperor Hirohito has assumed room temperature, the N[ew] H[ampshire] Fish and Game Department is encouraging legislators to pass a bill that would stem the flow of illegal bear gall bladders to the Far East.

Hirohito died on January 7, 1989, so it is possible that this instance appeared before the Washington Post instance noted above, but the collection of magazines cited here runs across three volumes (presumably extending from 1988 to 1990), so the window is rather large.

The term next appears in Google Books search results in a letter to the editor of the New York Times Magazine from a reader in Suffield, Connecticut, in 1991:

Limbaugh's targets are the homeless and their advocates, minorities and the "NOW crowd." This is hardly a satirical hit list with which a modern-day Swift or Twain could identify. Nevertheless, a funny, right-wing conservative is a novelty that bears listening to—for a while anyway. I'll predict his act has another year before it Assumes Room Temperature (as Rush would say).

Limbaugh's book, The Way Things Ought to Be, mentioned in the Urban Dictionary entry quoted in BiscuitBoy's question, was published in 1992. For the next decade, the expression seems to have been especially popular in the Limbaugh-attuned right-wing commentariat. Examples appear in The American Spectator (1996), The American Spectator again (1997), The American Spectator again (1999), Charlie Tyrrell, The Rules of Power: Reclaim Your America from Washington Hypocrites, Liars and the Compassion Con Game (2000), The Limbaugh Letter (2001), and The American Spectator again (2003).

But instances also appear in John Kolness, The Absolute Last Chance Diet Book (1991), Gary Stubblefield, Inside the U.S. Navy Seals (1995), Robert Waring, Totally Unauthorized Guide to Doom II (1995), Steve Brown, Approaching God: How to Pray (1996), Mike Mayo, Videohound's Video Premieres: The Only Guide to Video Originals and Limited Releases (1997), Don Pfarrer, Guerrilla Persuasion: Mastering the Art of Effective and Winning Business Presentations (1998), J. Douglas Arnold & ‎Zach Meston, Nintendo 64 Survival Guide, volume 2 (1998), and J. Lee Butts, Texas Bad Boys: Gamblers, Gunfighters, and Grifters (2001) ["Whether done with a pistol, rifle, derringer, or slingshot, George Wall assumed room temperature a day or so after the smoke cleared."—phrase not shown in snippet window].


Conclusion

The slang euphemism "assume room temperature" for "die" seems to owe whatever popularity it has primarily to Rush Limbaugh, although R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.'s American Spectator vigorously promoted its use as well. Dan Bron's answer clearly accounts for the sense of the expression.

Outside the satirical conservative milieu, the term doesn't seem to have especially wide currency, though the array of sources that have employed it—from videogame guides to a religious tract to a diet book to a business success strategy—indicates at least some seepage in multiple directions.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.