Bring out your lukewarm etymythologies

The instructions said to use lukewarm water, and Kim, being a linguist, wondered about the luke of lukewarm; we don’t, after all, have luke + anything else, even lukecool, lukecold, or lukehot.  I said that she wasn’t going to be satisfied with the standard story, and she wasn’t. A brief version, from NOAD2:

(of liquid or food that should be hot) only moderately warm; tepid. ORIGIN late Middle English: from dialect luke (probably from dialect lew ‘lukewarm’ and related to lee [‘shelter from wind or weather’]) + warm

This account is suppositious, and unclear on many points (what dialects, how, and why? and is lukewarm really etymologically ‘lukewarm’ + warm?). So it occurred to us to just invent more satisfying etymologies — or, better, to invite others to invent them, to devise etymythologies. This is that invitation: to suggest better stories than the truth (as far as we know the truth), IN A COMMENT ON THIS BLOG (I will disregard e-mail to me or Kim and comments on Facebook or Google+ or ADS-L or wherever else; I cannot possibly spend time amalgamating suggestions from half a dozen sources). But before you jump in, read the rest of what I have to say about lukewarm and about etymythology. And, eventually, some suggestions as to what you might use to play with for ideas about lukewarm etymythologies.

The semantics of lukewarm. Many people think of lukewarm as merely being at the midpoint on the scale from cold to hot, a roughly equal mixture of the two qualities, as in this graphic (for Lukewarm Media, a design studio developing media games):


But as the NOAD definition makes explicit, lukewarm carries a connotation (technically, an implicature) of failing to achieve hot: what is lukewarm “should be” hot. Lukewarm tea should be hot. In contrast, something that’s not cold enough, that’s not chilled (like a British beer, as encountered by an American) isn’t usually described as lukewarm, but merely as warm.

If you google on lukewarm, you’ll get a ton of hits (on evangelical Christian sites) for lukewarm Christian / Christianity, referring to failures to achieve true, “hot” Christianity (which, among other things, requires that the true Christian is committed to hating sin, while lukewarm Christians fail by counseling tolerance, towards homosexuals for instance).

However, the expectation of hotness in the semantics of lukewarm is only an implicature (not an entailment) of lukewarm, so the word can be used to refer merely to a midpoint on the temperature scale if the hotness expectation is not particularly relevant in the context (as, presumably, in #1).

Etymythology. From my 11/26/14 posting “Annals of etymythology: to pass for”:

[In] A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life … by Joshua Cohen, we read about the sad history of “black” people passing as “white”, with a story about the origin of the usage:

The term “passing” seems to come from the passes that slaves had to carry, which allowed them to visit their relatives on other plantations or when they were rented out for day labor.

Lexicographers and linguists will immediately smell a rat: the story is detailed and grounded in a very specific piece of history (and so is attractive to many people). But it’s only too specific: in fact, the usage is quite general, not restricted to blacks passing for whites, or to situations where some sort of pass is involved. Cohen’s account looks like an etymythology (aka mythetymology).

Narratophilia and etymythology. The account Cohen gives for to pass for/as is an invention … Two components for this account: an attractive story, and a story specifically about etymology. [discussion of the idea that “A good story is better than the truth” – narratophilia ‘love of stories’ – with links to postings on foamer ‘emthusiastic railfans’]

People invent etymological stories all the time, using chance similarities in sound or meaning and associations that occur to them — from those spinning plausible, even entertaining, tales. It’s an innocent occupation, even though it fails to do justice to the grindingly difficult work of unearthing the details of actual word and phrase histories.

Associations for the luke of lukewarm. Now, fodder for your etymythological play. Offered in no particular order.

Greek whiteness. Greek leukos ‘white’ in leukemia, leukocyte / leucocyte, etc.

The Apostle Luke. Check the Gospel of St. Luke for useful material.

The proper name domain. The names Luke, Lucas, Lukas, Luc, Luca, Lucius. Luke as in St. Luke and, much more recently, Luke Skywalker, as here:


Random associations: Cool Hand Luke, Lucas Cranach, George Lucas, Lukas Foss, Luca della Robbia, Dean and Deluca, Luc Montagnier, Lucius Beebe.

Pun time. Just a couple of possibilities: the werewolf Luke Garou, the roller coaster Luke the Luke.

Addendum later in the day, with four comments from Luc Vartan Baronian on Facebook:

1/4 other random associations: Lucky Luke (a Franco-Belgian comic)

2/4 other random associations: Lucania (allegedly containing the root of all the Lucas-derived names, Lucas meaning someone from Lucania) and the ancient Lucani inhabitants who spoke Oscan.

3/4 other random associations: Greek Lukos ‘wolf’ [AZ: usually transliterated as lykos (as in lycanthropy)]

4/4 other random associations: Canadian French idiomatic expression: “Attache ta tuque, mon Luc” (Fasten your beanie, Luke!) which means simply ‘get ready’. Another “Luke-warm” association!

10 Responses to “Bring out your lukewarm etymythologies”

  1. Tim Stewart Says:

    On a bus in Chicago several years ago I chanced to overhear two distinguished gray-bearded Chaucerian scholars discussing the etymologies of various words, and the tale of the origin of “lukewarm” was one of the many threads of their conversation. The story, as told by the elder of the twain, and as it is here presented by me without alteration or decoration, to the best of my recollection, is that there was in London some six or seven hundred years ago an eating establishment whose proprietor, a man named Louke (so named, it was uttered in hushed tones by the elderly scholar, after the Gospel itself), whose mercenary beverages and viands were never cool and never hot but ever inconveniently somewhere in between. Thus, in the flash cant of the vulgus mobile of The City, any thing that was neither pleasantly hot nor refreshingly cold was quickly deemed “Louke-warm.” (As for the evolution of the orthography of the term from then till today’s “lukewarm,” the trail is explained easily enough by those well-known processes of which there is no need to elaborate here for my educated readers.)

  2. Ben Zimmer Says:

    Those Chaucerian scholars were close to the mark, but alas, no cigar. In the olden days, it was considered good luck to be served a dish that, in Goldilocks fashion, was not too hot and not too cold. Such a just-right dish was called “luck warm.” In Scotland, though, this was pronounced “luke warm.” As the old Scottish tune goes, “If you lick the luke warm dish / You’ll never lack for what you wish / So go look in the loch for a fish.”

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    Comment from Luc Vartan Baronian on Facebook 10/26:

    Aha! My daughter started saying Papawarm just last week!

  4. Karen Schaffer Says:

    “Lukewarm” is a charming example of a bilingual phrase entering English, dating from the Norman conquest. It combines the French phrase “au lieu que” (meaning instead of) with Old English ‘warm’ to disdainfully describe something which ought to be warm but is not, i.e. “in place of warm”. In English, the initial syllable of the phrase ‘au’ is dropped and “lieu que” is contracted and anglicized to ‘luke’. This, “lukewarm” was born.

    Alternatively, there are those who claim the word is actually a bilingual rebracketing of ‘lieu’ plus Old Norse ‘kwarm’, again anglicizing to ‘lu+kwarm’ and finally ‘lukewarm’.

  5. Greg Morrow Says:

    Like most words, this is an acronym. In this case, it’s “left until King’s event”, that is, a dish prepared in advance for a banquet or ball, and hence only warm, not hot, at the time of eating.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      “Like most words” is a nice touch. As GM knows (though I didn’t mention it in this particular posting), acronymic sourcings, especially for everyday vocabulary, are mainstays of mythetymology.

  6. Thomas Hanke Says:

    Staying inside Germanic, it’s obviously a Low German/Dutch loan: die Luke = hatch, porthole
    The rest is trivial: warm with oven, luke-warm with open luke.
    #LearnGerman(ic) for fun and profit 💕

  7. Thomas Hanke Says:

    Let’s see, “luke” = “l + ook(y)” “ooky-warm” – strong hint for an origin in Western Romance or Arabic. Even better: “ook(y)” lacks a thorough origin story. I say look at L’Andalus for l’explanation.

    • Thomas Hanke Says:

      Added to the list: “nook/nooky” <~ “un ook” – of course, it’s ooky being in a(n) (n)ook!

  8. arnold zwicky Says:

    From David Craig:

    Because it’s Matthew cold, Mark cool, Luke warm, and John hot.

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