Temper, Temper!

“So your employer, Mrs. Anonymous, has the time to tackle the tangled and tempestuous tale of temperature?”

“Mmm-hmm,” murmured Amira Khan.

“Well, we talked about the fact that temperature meant the process or result of tempering, or mixing in the proper measure and proportion.”


“The verb temper comes from Old English temprian, from Latin temperāre to divide or proportion duly, to mingle in due proportion, to combine properly; to qualify, temper; to arrange or keep in due measure or proportion, to keep within limits, to regulate, rule.”

“That last part sounds like temperance.”

‘Right. But getting back to the “proper proportion” sense of the word, by the 1500s temperature came to mean the combination of “humors” in the body; or the person’s constitution attributed to the combination of choleric, phlegmatic, sanguine or melancholic humors, in other words the temperament .

“In 1670,” I went on, “Robert Boyle published a tract titled Of the Temperature of the Submarine Regions as to Heat and Cold. In it he used temperature with the more narrow meaning we use today: ‘the state of a substance or body with regard to warmth or coldness’”

“All right, but is that the same temp- as in temporary?

I sighed. “Well, that seems to be the consensus. Here’s the relevant passage in the OED:

Latin temperāre is generally held to be a derivative of tempus, tempor- a time or season, the proper time or season; but the sense history of both words is prehistoric and obscure: see Walde Lat. Etymol.

“We could traipse down to International Languages and take a gander at Lateinisches etymologisches Wörterbuch by Alois Walde. How’s your German?”

“Nicht so gut,” Ms. Khan admitted.

“Then let’s skip wading through Walde only to wander into obscurity.

“OK. But what about temperate and tempestuous?

“All in good time.”

Photo: Laura Herman as Lexie Kahn


This entry was posted in etymology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Temper, Temper!

  1. I like the way you’ve “estranged” your nationality into the name Amira Khan.

  2. “Nothing human is alien to me” is a good motto for a snooper.

  3. Pingback: The Jet and the Iceberg | Lexie Kahn: Word Snooper

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