My six-year-old overheard me talking on the phone the other day, telling my mother-in-law in Florida (sunny, warm, always 70-ish Florida) that it was “bitter cold” here in New England.
“Mom, what does ‘bitter’ mean?”
The child is constantly asking for definitions. What do I look like, a walking dictionary? I was irritated enough by the utterly calamitous bitter coldness of the cold in conjunction with the 1000th question of the day, I got lazy:
“’Very.’ It means ‘very very’ cold.”
I was dissatisfied with that response. What self-respecting vocab slinger wouldn’t be? I believe my child was dissatisfied as well, but he was too polite to say.
This bothered me: Why do we use a taste word (bitter) to describe a temperature (cold)?
So, I looked it up.
[bit-er] Show IPA adjective, bit·ter·er, bit·ter·est, noun, verb, adverb.
- having a harsh, disagreeably acrid taste, like that of aspirin, quinine, wormwood, or aloes.
- producing one of the four basic taste sensations; not sour, sweet, or salt.
- hard to bear; grievous; distressful: a bitter sorrow.
- causing pain; piercing; stinging: a bitter chill.
- characterized by intense antagonism or hostility: bitter hatred.
In my state of frozen numbness, my brain had failed to recall more than taste sensations in association with the word bitter.
Yes, of course, hard to bear, like a two thousand pound block of ice I must haul around in a moth-eaten backpack. Yes, causing pain, stinging my fingers and the inside of my nose. Yes, intense hostility – the temperature taking on an almost menacing character.
Ah, the sweet satisfaction of using the right word at the right time… and knowing what it means.
It almost warms me.