12-27-08 - Temper

Temper is one of the stranger words in English, since it can mean both something and its opposite. This struck me while reading Lonesome Dove, which uses the expression "out of temper" to mean that someone's patience was exhausted, as in "dern, this bronc been trying to throw me all day and I'm plum out of temper".

In this usage "temper" means something like "composure". But when someone is said to "have a temper" it means they are often "out of temper" or often "lose their temper". (this obviously suggests a riddle, something like - "what can a person have even when they lose it?").

There seem to be a variety of unrelated usages : (only giving examples of usages still common today)

Temperate climate
Temperance movement
The Well Tempered Clavier
Tempering Steel or Chocolate
Hold your temper / lose your temper / out of temper / have a temper / be in good temper / temper tantrum

Interestingly, temper the verb used to be more common than temper than noun, and the primary meaning was to "mix" or "moderate" or even "compromise", such as in tempering the sweet with a little sour. This usage is now rare.

Here are some modern dictinary definitions of the archaic usage :

9.  to moderate or mitigate: to temper justice with mercy.
10. to soften or tone down.
11. to bring to a proper, suitable, or desirable state by or as by blending or admixture.

And some from the 1828 Webster's :

    1. To mix so that one part qualifies the other; to bring to a moderate state; as, to temper justice with mercy.

    2. To compound; to form by mixture; to qualify, as by an ingredient; or in general, to mix, unite or combine two or more things so as to reduce the excess of the qualities of either, and bring the whole to the desired consistence or state.

    Thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy. Ex.30.

    3. To unite in due proportion; to render symmetrical; to adjust, as parts to each other.

    God hath tempered the body together. 1 Cor.12.

    4. To accommodate; to modify.

The "Tempered Clavier" of Bach seems to stem from this usage; it's a way of mixing the ideal tuning for the different keys to create a single tuning that's not quite right for any of them, but is okay enough for all of them; it's a "well mixed tuning" if you will.

Tempering Chocolate obviously comes from analogy to tempering metal, and in fact they are sort of similar, in both cases you are controlling the crystal formation by raising and lowering the temperature carefully through a small range. Understanding the origin of tempering metal is not obvious, but maybe it comes from the "compromise" origin like Bach's usage. Tempering metal is a way to acheive a good mix of hardness and softness that keeps it from being too brittle. (BTW many of the standard dictionary definitions for temper in the metallurgy usage are just wrong; you'll see definitions like "the degree of hardness" ; The Barbarian Keep has a nice little thing on tempering and a rant about misuse).

We're still left with the problem of the meaning of "temper" in reference to moods. The Webster's 1828 definition of temper has the two opposing meanings for the noun :

3. Calmness of mind; moderation.
4. Heat of mind or passion; irritation.

For laughs Wordia has the same two meanings but in opposite order :

3) noun,  a tendency to exhibit uncontrolled anger; irritability
4) noun,  a mental condition of moderation and calm

It seems to me that the meaning with respect to moods was originally "moderation", and perhaps just misunderstanding of the expression made it flip.

Another posibility involves another meaning of "temper". Temper can also just mean "mood or state of mind", thus you could have an ill temper, a good temper, a magnanimous temper, a generous temper, etc. Over time temper may have been mainly used in the form "bad temper" and "ill temper" and thus simply become "temper" meaning "bad mood". ( some people still use temper with other adjectives, but this is no longer standard English; presumably phrases like The Heroic Temper would now mainly be rendered as The Heroic Temperament, at least in America; I find a lot of usage in Australia of "Temper" in the more general sense).

Anyway, this leads to funny possibilities, such as : To temper his image of having a temper, Giulani shows good temper . When confronted with intemperance, to show you don't have a temper you must keep your temper.

1 comment:

castano said...

I think that the meaning with respect to moods comes from the old belief that the state of the health, and for extension the mind, was the result of a certain combination of the four body fluids (or humors): blood, choler, phlegm, and melancholy. Predominance of one of these components resulted in one of the four personality types (or temperaments): sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic.

I think that in this setting to have a bad temper simply means to have a bad combination of humors. However, the expression became more commonly used for choleric temperaments, and that resulted in expressions like "to lose their temper".

old rants