Monday, September 26, 2016

The Changing Meanings Of "Hot Mess"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post traces the changing meanings in the United States of the vernacular term "hot mess".

The content of this post is presented for etymological, cultural, and political purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

This tweet motivated me to write this post on the term "hot mess":
John Nichols @NicholsUprising
"When primary message of a candidate's surrogates on the day before a debate is that they oppose fact checking, that candidate is a hot mess."
8:13 PM - 25 Sep 2016

Prior to reading that tweet, I came across the term "hot mess" in this comment from a discussion thread about high school stomp & shake cheerleading which I included in this recent pancocojams post
Adrian Lewis
"This cheer is a disgrace, motions are sloppy, people are off, you sound a hot mess when you say it and i can barley understand you. (jussayin) #ProudCheerleader4YEARSSTRONG"
Here's the reply to that comment:
Teya J
"@adrian Lewis it's really not. This cheer go hard, their moves aren't sloppy, and they are tight in arms and hip movements. Y u raining on somebody's parade?..."
I don't know when I first heard the term "hot mess". I've used it informally and I've often heard it used informally as an insulting description of a person, thing, or situation. Since I'm interested in word origins, meanings, and how those meanings change, I've thought about the term "hot mess", but never looked it up online before today.

Initially, I thought that the word "hot" in "hot mess" was an intensifier which meant something like "really" (i.e. He is really a mess.). I found a comment that supports that meaning in my online search (Read #8 in the dcurbanmon's discussion thread below).

I still believe that a person, thing, or situation that is "a hot mess" is worse than a person, thing, or situation that is just described as "a mess". But after reading some of the comments given below, particularly some comments written by some bloggers in the [Washington] D.C. urban moms' forum and some definitions found on, I'm now leaning more towards the view that the word "hot" in "hot mess" means something that (or someone who) is like a "big mess on the stove, all boiled over"* or "a steaming pile of dog poop*". Note that "dog poop" is colloquially referred to as "dog mess".

*These quotes are from either dcurbanmom's or's defintions.

A newer (for me, and I think "newer" historically) definition of "hot mess" is:
"a person or thing that is a mess, as in being disorganized, confused, or untidy, yet remains attractive or appealing"
He’s a hot mess when he wakes up in the morning! Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2016 "
For the record, that website indicated that "hot mess" is a noun. That website also included a section entitled "Examples from the Web for hot mess". However, that section only had one example and that example was listed under the sub-heading of "Contemporary Examples". Here's that example:
"President Obama could start mopping up this hot mess by causing some heads to roll in his Chicago campaign headquarters."

[source] An Obama Campaign Photo That Looks Like a Young Republican Rally
Mansfield Frazier
April 9, 2012; Daily Beast
That example doesn’t appear to me to fit the definition that website gave for "hot mess". Consider that if, as the Daily Beast writer noted, President Obama started mopping up a hot mess by firing people in his Chicago campaign headquarters, did those actions result in him remaining attractive or appealing?

On the other hand, I believe that the definition of "hot mess" as 'something or someone that is a "popping hot", boiling over the stove mess, or something/someone that or who resembles a steaming pile of dog poop' does fit that sentence.

Furthermore, I believe that the definition of 'hot mess' as something that or someone who is "disorganized, confused, or untidy that remains attractive or appealing" is the result of people trying to graft one of the slang meanings of "hot" (i.e. sexy, physically attractive) unto the term "hot mess". But the word "hot" doesn't always have a vernacular meaning. And the word "hot" doesn't have to mean "physically attractive". Another slang meaning of "hot" is something that is stolen. That meaning may have come about because if someone touches that stolen item, he or she could end up being burned - arrested and jailed. Also, a very popular record is "hot" as it is "burning up" the music charts.

As my earlier comment implied, I believe that the term "hot mess" [in the United States} came from African American Vernacular English, and the definition of "hot mess" as something that (or someone who) is "disorganized, confused, or untidy that (who) remains attractive and appealing" is a relatively new meaning that White Americans came up with. Given a definition included on, a definition of "hot mess" that includes a positive element can be dated to at least 2011. Read that definition below. However, it appears that that type of definition gained in popularity in 2014 due to its use in several mainstream American television series.

*Read the Arrested Development section below and other information/comments in this post and let me know what you think about this subject.

From How the Meaning of ‘Hot Mess’ Has Changed Through History
Katy Steinmetz April 2, 2014
...."In the 1800s, someone mentioning a “hot mess” was likely talking about food, especially food being served to soldiers. “When the inspection was over,” writes Arthur Duke of Wellington in 1880, “the Major-General asked the men if they had any complaints, upon which about half the battalion fell out, to complain of being deprived of their hot mess.” In Latin, missus refers to a portion of food, and for centuries its descendant mess literally referred to a meal or the amount of food needed to make a meal (“We cut a mess ’a pork here.”) or even the amount of milk a cow gives at one milking (“Ol’ Bess, she gives a good mess.”).

By the early 1900s, Americans were using “hot mess” in a figurative sense, to describe spots of trouble or unpleasant, confusing situations. Kory Stamper, associate editor at Merriam-Webster, dug up one example from Pall Mall Magazine, in a 1907 fictional account of mounted police who appear to be encountering mountain people: “‘Now, ef I says the word, yo’ll be in a hot mess in about one minute!’” a character announces, “’Mounters’ ain’t ‘lowed in ‘yar!’” In a 1912 book about Andrew Jackson, the author describes the former president as a man who “was pretty apt to make a nice hot mess” of things. You know, with that temperament of his.

In the South Midland region of the U.S., encompassing parts of states like Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama, “mess” is used to describe an “objectionable or foolish person.” Ben Zimmer, executive director at, points out that none other than Scarlett O’Hara called Melanie a “mealy-mouthed little mess” in the 1936 novel Gone With the Wind.

Zimmer also points out that “mess” and “hot” both have an abundance of slang meanings. Mess can describe an eccentric person, a large quantity or something both “praiseworthy” and “confusing.” Hot can be used to describe someone daring, flamboyant, uninhibited, wild, intense, lustful, sexy or drunk"...
The author of this article writes that in the context of Amy Schumer’s Comedy Center series, the definition of "hot mess" would be something like “(n.), someone in obvious disarray or disorganization, esp. while remaining attractive in spite of this.” The author further writes that "Ads for the second season of comedienne Amy Schumer’s sketch show, Inside Amy Schumer, promised viewers one thing in bold capital letters in advance of the premiere Tuesday night: “HOT. MESS.”

For hip kids familiar with that slang term, it’s easy to see why promoters chose it to sum up the program—one in which the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Schumer spills sandwiches on herself and considers participating in “low budge” pornography.”....
As a means of establishing a date for this particular definition of the term "hot mess", here's information about Amy Schumer's series:
"Inside Amy Schumer is an American sketch comedy television series created and hosted by its star, Amy Schumer. The series premiered on April 30, 2013, on Comedy Central.... Inside Amy Schumer completed its second season on June 3, 2014, and was renewed for a third season a week late"...

From Oxford Dictionary Adds Words "Side Boob," "Hot Mess," and "YOLO", By Sierra Marquina, August 14, 2014

"hot mess (n.): a person or thing that is spectacularly unsuccessful or disordered"

"The first season of the television comedy series Arrested Development aired between November 2, 2003 and June 6, 2004, on Fox in the United States."...

mrmackerel, May 19 '14 “Hot mess” meaning and etymology
...."There was an episode of Arrested Development where the term "hot mess" was created with the currently popular US meaning. You even learn why the term was made. And around that time, this was not a popular term in the US. So, there is the possibility that episode is the root. Other TV shows have also been trying to pump new terms into pop culture. I think 30 Rock got a few wins there.

EDIT - from Arrested Development wiki: "The Bluth family frequently use the phrase 'hot mess' to describe each other in Season Four. [Although the term was defined and used in a previous season.]* It gained popular usage after the designer Christian Siriano used the term on the fourth season of Project Runway."
*I'm not sure what season of Arrested Development the writer is referring to here.

"The fourth season of the television comedy series Arrested Development premiered on Netflix on May 26, 2013 and consists of 15 episodes.[1][2] This season serves as a revival to the series after it was canceled by Fox in 2006.

The show's storyline centers on the Bluth family, a formerly wealthy, habitually dysfunctional family, and the show incorporates hand-held camera work, narration, archival photos, and historical footage."
Note: The Bluth family is a White American family.

From "11 Great Moments of Foreshadowing in 'Arrested Development'"

S4E10 – During this episode, Lucille and Buster discover a phrase that both find very useful in their arguments, and it becomes a running joke between the two: "A hot mess." They’re a little behind the times, though. Michael uses the phrase to describe Lucille 2 in the first episode of the season and Oscar yells it to Dr. Norman in the second.”

"Season 4
1: Flight of the Phoenix
Michael refers to Lucille Austero as a hot mess when she falls down behind her door.

2: Borderline Personalities
Dr. Norman, we have a hot mess.

10: Queen B.
Buster and Lucille both enjoy using the term "hot mess."

14: Off The Hook
Just six weeks ago, Buster was a hot mess. Lucille: "So you can see why I need the testimony of someone who isn't a hot mess." Buster: "You're a hot mess!" Lucille: "You're a hot mess!"

Sources: Joke data compiled by Adam Cole / NPR. Episode metadata from The TVDB via a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States (CC BY 3.0 US) license"

Pancocojams Editor:
These are selected comments from that discussion thread. All of the commenters in that discussion have the screen name "Anonymous". I'm assuming that the number after the date refers to when that comment was posted on that date. I've assigned numbers to these comments, but they may not be in consecutive order.

From Please define "Hot Mess"

1. 06/15/2010 17:33
"I am pretty hip, if I do say so myself
But this whole "hot mess" term has got me totally confused. How do you define it?"

2. 06/15/2010 17:59
"Exactly what it sounds like. A complete mess or disaster. This can mean looks or the way a person acts. Check out urban dictionary."
Three definitions for "hot mess" from urban are included below.

3. 06/15/2010 18:02
"I assumed that "hot" meant they were attractive."

4. 06/15/2010 18:12
"A mess X 2. A big ole mess. A mess and a half. A mess that's "hot" because it's popping right now, all over the place."

5. 06/15/2010 18:27
"I heard this southern slang for the first time last year, and love the term! I always picture a big mess on the stove, all boiled over = hot mess. Then someone else told me it was more like a steaming turd = hot mess. I like my mental picture better."


6. 11/29/2012 10:56
"Being a hot mess is NOT attractive or a compliment. I hope nobody has actually taken that as a compliment because there's nothing good about being a hot mess."

7. 11/29/2012 11:07
[Quotes] :
Anonymous wrote:
I heard this southern slang for the first time last year, and love the term! I always picture a big mess on the stove, all boiled over = hot mess. Then someone else told me it was more like a steaming turd = hot mess. I like my mental picture better.

[Another Anonymous]
It's not southern slang.

[End of quotes]

"People in the south have been using the term "mess", without the "hot" for generations.
Ex:"She is SUCH a MESS. Bless her heart." Usually said while shaking head. Is used with affection for small children and people you love who just don't have their stuff together. Can refer to appearance (as in a child with a dirty face) or behavior (chasing a sister through the house). Not sure what addition of hot means, although when I've heard it used is not a substitute for attractive.”

8. 11/29/2012 11:23
"The hot in hot mess has nothing to do with attractiveness. It is just for emphasis on the mess."


9. 01/19/2013 01:07
"Dear White People a hot mess has nothing to do with attractiveness. It is not a compliment."

10. 01/19/2013 20:57
[Quote] Anonymous wrote:
Dear White People a hot mess has nothing to do with attractiveness. It is not a compliment.

"Bizarre that you presume to know posters' race."

11. 01/20/2013 02:35
Quote: Anonymous wrote: [01/19/2013 22:43]
It's a phrase that has its roots in black culture, "you look a hot mess" and was not a compliment. It was later coopted by semi-trendy young women in a way to refer to themselves or each other in a self-deprecating fashion. At this point, it is overused to such a degree that nobody with any cool factor would use it anymore. Now it's used by suburban worker bee types who carpool to the city, get a spot out front, and cry "rock star parking, girlfriend!" and think starbucks is the best thing to ever happen to coffee.

It was slightly clever four years ago. Now it's hackneyed.

Next up: amirite, I know right?

Unrelated but likewise overused phrase: snowflake / special snowflake / precious snowflake

[end of quote]

"+100000. Once white people adopt a slang term, the cool factor bites the dust."


12. 11/26/2013 21:11
Anonymous wrote:
Dear White People a hot mess has nothing to do with attractiveness. It is not a compliment.

Anonymous wrote:
Bizarre that you presume to know posters' race.
[end of quotes]

"NP, but black people know what this phrase means, as our families have used it for generations. If you are confused as to its meaning, its a near certainty that you are not black."

Pancocojams Editor:
I've assigned numbers to these definitions for referencing purposes only.

Notice the synonyms for "hot mess" that are given with the definitions.


1. Hot Messes
"Defined, "hot messes" refers to when a "person's appearance is in a state of total disarray while still maintaining an undeniable attractiveness" & allure.

Justin: "Did you see Molly this morning? We partied all night and she ended up passing out on the lawn."
Eric: "Yea, she came in this morning to find the rest of her clothes. She looked terrible, and awesome."
Justin: "Damn, hot messes' like that don't come around very often."

#hot messes #hot mess #hot messes' #hot #mess #messes #messes' #sexy
by jbalbs@kstate January 17, 2011

2. Hot Mess
"a derogatory term describing a situation, behavior, appearance, etc. that is disastrously bad. Think "faux pas" but times ten. Possible origin is literal (think, steaming dogpile).

"She got up on stage and tried to sing Beyonce's "Dangerously In Love" but her performance was a hot mess."

"Girl came in to school this morning looking a hot mess, her hair all jacked up and slouchin' in house shoes."

#messy #sloppy #disgusting #nasty #stank
by nikflorida February 25, 2007

hot mess
3. "A state of disarray so chaotic that it's dizzying to look at. A mess that is beyond the normal range of disarray. Visual clutter that draws attention to itself.

When the Project Runway contestant showed a garment made out of multicolored plush animals tied together with yarn, Heide Klum declared, "It's a hot mess!"
#messy #clutter #hoarding #chaos #junk
by JavaJaneOhio November 04, 2010

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  1. Well, I just finished watching the first USA Presidential debate.

    And I can say this without any if, ands, or buts:

    Donald Trump was and is a hot mess.

    1. And when I referred/refer to Donald Trump as a hot mess, I meant/mean the older insult definition of that phrase and not the newer definition that includes elements of attractiveness.

  2. Ha Ha!

    I just happened to find this use of the phrase "hot mess" in this dailykos article: My useless $0.02 cents worth on the debate. With a poll. By Murfster35, 2016/09/27
    "I have to admit, I absolutely love the split screen in a Presidential debate. Clinton was calm and self assured, seldom interrupting. Mein Trumpf on the other hand was a hot mess. He fidgeted, he rolled his eyes, he drank more god&&mn* water than Marco Rubio ever did, and he made short, frequent interruptions. Having the cameras trained on both candidates for all 90:00 minutes allowed the audience watching on television to catch all of the nuances that normally only the audience in the auditorium would see. It was incredibly powerful to an average viewer."...
    *This word was fully spelled out in that comment.

    I added italics to highlight that sentence.

  3. Here's another comment from that same dailykos article which describes what a hot mess means in the context of Donald Trump:

    lotusmaglite, Sep 27, 2016
    "Nobody should blame themselves for worrying in this cycle. The unthinkable keeps happening, so why not the impossible? And if the debate had been cut to just the first 12 minutes, Trump might not have come off so much as an unlikable, smug, ranting, incoherent, racist, sexist, ignorant, fact-challenged moron. He might have even seemed even-keeled. But thankfully, about 12 minutes is all he could muster for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and then it was Trump On."