Midweek Muse: When bitter is sweet

winterweeds

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·ter

[bit-er]  Show IPA adjective, bit·ter·er, bit·ter·est, noun, verb, adverb.

adjective

  1. having a harsh, disagreeably acrid taste, like that of aspirin, quinine, wormwood, or aloes.
  2. producing one of the four basic taste sensations; not sour, sweet, or salt.
  3. hard to bear; grievous; distressful: a bitter sorrow.
  4. causing pain; piercing; stinging: a bitter chill.
  5. characterized by intense antagonism or hostility: bitter hatred.

(Ref: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/bitter?s=t)

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.

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