Seldom does historical research sort out the uses of an idiomatic phrase so neatly as it did 'hot minute' and its earlier variant 'red-hot minute'. The early uses had three principal senses:
- A brief or specified period of intense emotion, usually anger, or activity.
- The literal sense, as in "we sat in his sweltering office for 50 hot minutes".
- A window of opportunity, usually but not necessarily short.
An 1847 quote, the earliest use I found, attests sense 1:
Nevertheless, you didn't mean to kill the old man — I'm sure you didn't. 'Twas a hot minute, and its a bad job....
"The History of St. Giles and St. James", Douglas Jerrold, in Douglas Jerrold's Shilling Magazine, 1847.
So also this from 1850 attests the other facet of sense 1:
The first hare was found in the Okeford Vale, and, after a wide and rapid circle, was forced right away up Okeford Hill to the level of the downs, and on across the open to Turnworth, and to Houdsley Gorse, where a fox emerged in view the leading hounds, which they raced over Shillingston Downs, sinking the hill for the meadows at its base, and on across the Okeford Vale for Coneygeat Wood, where they were stopped with difficulty, with the fox few yards before them, at the end of a red hot 50 minutes!
Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 17 March 1850 (paywalled).
The literal sense, 2, is represented by this brief excerpt from an 1852 account of an Indian wedding:
There was nothing to while away the hot minutes....
Belfast News-Letter, 20 February 1852 (paywalled).
For sense 3, the following anecdote from an 1859 Tennessee newspaper provides an origin story not only for 'hot minute', but also for 'strike while the iron's hot':
Strike When the Iron's Hot.
"Strike when the iron's hot, boys," the old smith always said to us, as we used to gather round his anvil in the old shop, on our way to and from sceool — "Strike when the iron's hot, boys," as suiting his action to his words, he raised his brawny arm and dealt the swift and heavy blows upon the glowing iron. "Mind ye, boys, there are always red-hot minutes in life, when you must ply the strokes; if you let them cool, you may hammer forever, and never do anything. Strike when the iron's hot, boys. Remember that."
The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee), 23 Jan 1859 (paywalled).
The context of this latter attestation makes plain it is, or is represented as, a remembrance of the author of the piece.
These three senses are repeated in the later uses; I easily collected 27 from the years between 1859 and 1923 before abandoning the pursuit. The majority of uses are in sense 3, with only a sprinkling of uses in senses 1 and 2. Also, for sense 3, the phrase occurred as both 'red-hot minute' and 'hot minute'.
Fast-forwarding to present day uses, I worked my way backward using an assortment of tools (an internet search engine, popular news databases, other corpora), and looking for the origin of the other sense:
- A long time.
This search at first seemed unproductive; most uses even in the present day represent sense 3 or a meaning very similar to that of sense 3. Sprinklings of uses of the phrase in senses 1 and 2 persist, of course. However, I did begin to see a pattern in the infrequent uses where the sense either was, or might be (context did not always distinguish), sense 4.
Simply, after the phrase began to be negated, perhaps sometime in the 1990s due to cultural influence from the popularity of The Red Hot Chili Pepper's hit song "One Hot Minute", semantic drift worked to produce uses of 'hot minute' in sense 4, "a long time", even when the phrase was not negated.
The following quote from a 2010 newspaper article clearly illustrates how negation of 'hot minute' produces the meaning, "a long time":
When Chief US District Judge Vaughn Walker overturned California's gay marriage ban on Wednesday, it wasn't a hot minute before Hollywood stars started tweeting their support.
The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 05 Aug 2010 (paywalled).
In the phrase "it wasn't a hot minute", "long" or "a long time" can be substituted for "a hot minute" without altering the sense of the phrase. Similarly, if the phrase used had instead been "it was a hot minute", then "a short time" or "soon" could be substituted for "a hot minute" without altering the meaning. So, the quote demonstrates the semantic equivalence of "it was a hot minute" and the negated "it wasn't a hot minute".
That 2010 use, and the eleven other uses of 'hot minute' I collected from 2000-2016, strongly suggest that, originally, explicit negation of 'hot minute' produced the opposite meaning. Not all the uses in sense 4 that I collected are explicitly negated but, notably, the earlier uses are either explicitly negated or negated implicitly by a reference to 'a time since [something]'.
Here are the uses, with some brief analysis. Parenthetical comments are mine:
2000: "He wasn't going to be there for a hot minute ("long" or "a long time"), he knew that." Reno Gazette-Journal (Reno, Nevada), 11 Jan 2000 (paywalled).
2003: "I didn't believe that for a hot minute ("long"), but I asked him to see what he would say." Kenyon Review, retrieved from the COCA collection.
2009 (or 2012): "It's been a hot minute since we've seen each other." (This appears to be a rephrasing of "I haven't seen you for a hot minute.") Online Slang Dictionary.
2012: "It must be understood that I do not for a hot minute doubt the benefits of solidarity." From "Students are Biggest Losers from Compulsory Union Membership", NOW collection.
2012: "Even still, I'm at best an otter and wouldn't last a hot minute in the bear caves Harry is still known to frequent." From "Summer of '87: Harry and the Hendersons: Messin' With Sasquatch", COCA collection.
2012: "I have been in it for a hot minute" ("a long time"; semantic drift in action). Honolulu Star-Bulletin (Honolulu, Hawaii), 19 Oct 2012 (paywalled).
2015: "This Chicago singer-rapper has been poised for mainstream success for a hot minute." (This 'hot minute' may or may not represent "a long time", and shades toward sense 3, 'window of opportunity'.) Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), 19 May 2015 (paywalled).
2016: "Give Cubs fans a new vantage point for a hot minute. It's not a rooftop seat. It's a city-top seat." (I don't know if this use is in sense 4, sense 2, some variant of sense 1, or a mixture of senses.) Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), 25 Jan 2016 (paywalled).
2016: "Hey, Ryan! I hadn't seen you in a hot minute!" Asheville Citizen-Times (Asheville, North Carolina), 01 Apr 2016 (paywalled).
2016: "Haven't talk to you in a hot minute -- wanted to wish you a good day." From a comment on "Leonardo DiCaprio & Michael Douglas Commemorate International ...", NOW collection.
2016: "Chicago's Homme has been on tour for a hot minute ("a long time"), first on an extensive jaunt throughout Europe and now in North America...." (Again, semantic drift in action, along with shades of sense 3, 'window of opportunity' as well as sense 1, 'a specified period of intense activity'.) Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), 26 Oct 2016 (paywalled).
Of the twelve uses with meaning approximating 'a long time' that I collected from 2000-2016, seven are explicitly negated. Of the remaining five, two are from 2016 and the meaning of 'hot minute' is somewhat indeterminate, one is from 2015, one is from 2012, and one is possibly from 2009. Discounting the 2009 quote edited in 2012, all but one of the 7 uses I found with the meaning of "a long time" from the first dozen years in the 2000s are explicitly negated. The meaning of the negated 'hot minute' used in the prevailing sense 3, "a brief window of opportunity", is the obvious "a long time".
These observations suggest that 'hot minute' began to acquire the sense of 'a long time' in the decade before the 2000s, and then in the context of the negation of its meaning of 'a window of opportunity, usually but not necessarily short'.