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shameless pleading

Lukewarm

In August, of course, we’re toasty warm.

Dear WD: Could you assist me in finding the origins of “lukewarm,” and perhaps who it was named after? — Ingrid Zensen.

Why, sure. Lukewarm” is barely warm at all, and thereby hangs a tale. Those of us who live in apartment buildings know, of course, that “Luke” is a generic nickname for the building superintendent. It is his job to ensure that your apartment is always at least slightly chilly in the winter and that the temperature of your Monday-morning shower never rises above a cozy 62 degrees. The “Luke” in charge of my building, in a perversely brilliant feat of engineering, has managed to make my study the only room in the apartment that has any heat at all for months at a time in the winter. I have reason to believe that he arranged it this way because he knows perfectly well that the whimperings of my wife and two cats outside my study door make it devilishly hard for me to get any work done.

Of course, the actual origin of “lukewarm” predates apartment buildings, superintendents and thermostats by quite a bit. “Luke” was an Middle English word, now obsolete, meaning “warm,” which was based on “lew,” another word for “warm.” “Lew,” in turn, was derived from the Old English word “hleow,” meaning (guess what?) “warm.” I guess we can gather that staying warm must have been a major concern of people who spoke Old and Middle English. You have probably realized by now that “lukewarm” actually amounts to saying “warm-warm,” but this sort of redundancy is common when obsolete words are carried over into modern usage.

If we trace “hleow” back a bit further, we find the Latin word “calor,” meaning “heat.” “Calor” gave us “calorie” (a measure of heat), “cauldron,” and, from the derivative word “calere” (“to be hot”), the word “nonchalant,” describing someone who stays cool. By the way, those of you who collect coincidences may wish to note that one of the most nonchalant movie characters in recent memory, played by Paul Newman, was known as “Cool Hand Luke.”

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