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Word: Hot Mess From humble grub to humblebrag.

Word: Hot Mess From humble grub to humblebrag.

  • Words Pip Usher
  • Photograph Annemarieke van Drimmelen

Etymology: First coined to describe a hot meal, the term’s sloppy connotations quickly morphed from food-related to figurative when it came to reference a chaotic yet appealing individual.

Meaning: Stand-up comedian Amy Schumer has amassed a multimillion-dollar fortune through being a hot mess. Her ribald humor—which riffs on binge-drinking, body parts and bad sex—has established this identity as her shtick, so much so that billboards advertising her show, Inside Amy Schumer, were branded with the phrase.

Ask a soldier in the late 19th century to describe a hot mess, however, and he’d launch into details of the canteen meal he’d just scoffed. A literal descriptor of a warm, mushy meal prepared in bulk, the word’s origins can be traced to the Latin root, “missus,” meaning a portion of food. The term jumped into American lingo to describe slapdash, troublesome scenarios. A 1912 biography describes former President Andrew Jackson as “pretty apt to make a nice hot mess.” From there, it was a short jump from situational label to personal.

A decade ago, “hot mess” entered the mainstream with Project Runway contestant Christian Siriano’s finger-clicking usage. Since then, it has been applied both as an insult—“What a hot mess,” you might say of someone whose dysfunction leads them from one disaster to another—and as a badge of honor. In recent years, enough high-profile women have appropriated the phrase for journalist Eileen G’Sell to label this form of self-identification as a “hot mess humblebrag.”

It seems curious to boast of one’s failings. Yet on closer examination, it’s the type of self-deprecation that works only when someone’s formidable achievements suggest otherwise. If you’re wildly successful, claims of chaotic behavior can lend a winsome air of relatability. But for the rest of us, there’s nothing hot about it—it’s simply a big, stinking mess.

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 37

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