Hot Potato – Idiom, Meaning and Origin

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

A hot potato is an idiom referring to a tricky or controversial topic. Its meaning relates to sensitive issues that might cause contention within the group in which it is mentioned. It’s like when a teacher avoids discussing a certain topic because they know it might land them in hot water with the administration: “The teacher sidestepped that hot potato, not wanting to spend hours explaining herself later.”

Now, what’s the deal with idioms? They’re phrases where the words together have a different meaning than what you’d expect from the individual words. It’s like the English language’s way of adding a twist to things. And trust me, mastering them can make conversations a lot more colorful.

Stick around to explore the meaning and usage of this idiom, its possible origins, and examples of how to use it in a modern context.

A Hot Potato Idiom Meaning

Hot Potato – Idiom Meaning and Origin

Hot potato refers to those super touchy subjects or controversial issues that are best avoided at family dinners unless you’re aiming for a heated debate. You know, the kind of topics that feel like they’re “too hot to handle,” so you’d rather not touch them with a ten-foot pole. And if you ever hear someone say, “Drop it like a hot potato,” it means they’re avoiding the topic like the plague.

For example:

  • This entire election cycle has become a political hot potato, pitting people against one another over the most mundane of issues simply due to who is running.
  • Her replacement position has become the hot potato of the season, with potential candidates dropping out like flies.
  • Even though he passed that hot potato onto me, addressing it is way above my pay grade.
  • Discussing the company’s recent layoffs became such a hot potato at the office that nobody wanted to bring it up during the meeting.
  • When it comes to debating climate change in certain circles, you’re essentially juggling a hot potato; emotions run high, and opinions are strong.
  • After the failed product launch, the topic became such a hot potato that even the marketing team steered clear of mentioning it.

Picture this: You’ve just plucked a sizzling potato from a campfire and are frantically passing it between your hands to avoid getting singed. That’s the vibe these phrases are channeling. It’s all about dodging the burn, both literally and figuratively.

Hot Potato Origins

Hot Potato Ngram
Hot potato usage trend.

Digging into the roots of “hot potato” is quite an adventure! While the precise beginnings of this phrase are a bit hazy, many believe it emerged in the early 1800s. Though it’s probable that folks were using it in daily chit-chat even before then.

Picture this: kids in the late 1800s playing a game, passing around a potato as if it were burning hot. The unlucky one left holding it is out, reinforcing the idea of hurriedly tossing the potato to avoid being “burned.” Doesn’t it feel just like those times you’ve wanted to quickly pass on a thorny issue?

Nowadays, when we say something’s a “hot potato,” we’re hinting that it’s a touchy subject—maybe even one we’d rather sidestep altogether.

Let’s Review

A hot potato or drop it like a hot potato is an idiomatic expression that is used to indicate or avoid a problematic issue. Although its origins are difficult to pinpoint, the term has likely been used since at least the early 1800s, if not longer.

Games surrounding its figurative use were well played by the end of the 1800s, and the expression has not changed for over 100 years. So, when you need to highlight something as controversial and inflammatory, you can call it a hot potato and exclaim you are avoiding being burned!