In Word Through The Times, we trace how one word or phrase has changed throughout the history of the newspaper.

“The summer of 2023 is shaping up to be a hot one,” two New York Times reporters wrote in June. They meant temperatures, not trends.

The word “hot,” in its many meanings, has been used in The Times frequently since the 1970s. But “hot” also made appearances in the newspaper’s earliest issues: In 1890, a short article reported on a tense exchange between English and French members of City Hall in Montreal under the headline “Hot Words in the Council.” Here, “hot” evoked anger.

The word has been attached to a handful of modern idioms: hot mess (a disorganized person or situation), hot take (as Styles put it, “a hastily assembled but perhaps heartfelt piece of incendiary opinionated content”) and hot button (a topic or issue that elicits a strong feeling), to name a few. “Hot” was even featured in an On Language column by William Safire in 2008; he contended that “hot” was losing some of its pop-culture appeal to one of its antonyms, which had taken on a similar slang meaning: cool. “While what’s hot is becoming lukewarm as it may be entering its last generation,” he wrote, “cool retains its slang-froid on campus.”

In the late 1920s, “hot” had begun to mean desirable or conventionally attractive, per Mr. Safire’s column. In a 2022 article about the expanding “definition of hotness,” the writer Danya Issawi explored a movement inspired by the rapper Megan Thee Stallion, whose 2019 song “Hot Girl Summer” spread messages of self-confidence. “These days, being hot no longer pertains only to your physical appearance,” Ms. Issawi wrote, “but includes how you move through the world and how you see yourself.”

Though “hot” has many informal meanings, it’s still most commonly used to describe high temperatures. The word’s appearance in The Times has spiked as temperatures themselves have spiked to dangerous levels: As reported this month, more than 61,000 people in Europe died in 2022 because of the heat waves that swept the continent. Three days this July were very likely the hottest in Earth’s modern history. And per a shocking report released in March, Earth is likely to cross a critical threshold for global warming unless nations band together to seriously curb climate change.

“It is about to get hotter,” wrote Judson Jones, a meteorologist and reporter who is part of The Times’s Weather Data team. He said: “‘Hot’ is not just a word on the edge of my typing fingers, but one on the lips of people around the country. But that word only goes so far.” This week, as heat waves stifled parts of the United States, Mr. Jones turned to words that truly underscored the gravity of the situation: “I was drawn to use descriptors like oppressive, dangerous and hazardous,” he said.


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