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Lukewarm: A Well-Known Word with Uncertain Beginnings

Lukewarm is a word that’s well known, even if it’s not widely used. The term denotes one of two sentiments — “moderately warm, tepid” or “lacking conviction, halfhearted”. There’s little question about its meaning, but its origin holds some mystery.

Depending on your upbringing, both geographical location and decade, you may have heard a few different variations of lukewarm. The English language blog World Wide Words cites lew-warm, loo-warm, lewke-warm, and luckwarm as commonly used alternatives. Though these words seem more like mispronunciations than distant cousins of lukewarm, they may have close ties to the word’s etymology.

Lukewarm’s exact origin is still up for debate, but the most popular theory suggests it first appeared in the late 14th century and was derived from either Middle Dutch or Old Frisian. The term leuk meant tepid or weak. However, as the word blog Sesquiotica points out, the Dutch word for lukewarm is not leuk, but lauw. This had led some etymologists to link lukewarm to the Old English word hleowe, which means “warm”. The earliest use of the word referred to temperature; by the 1520s, lukewarm’s definition had shifted to describe people’s actions or efforts.

Some research suggests lukewarm, in an altered form, was used as early as 1398. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a translation of 13th century encyclopedia De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Order of Things) published the following passage: “The broth of clete…comfortyth the teeth: yf it be luke warme hote holde in the mouth.”

Lukewarm was also referenced in The Bible. Etymologists reference the following passage from Revelation 3:15–16: “I wish you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot or cold, I will spit you of My mouth.” Though Christian historians advise this passage isn’t to be taken too literally, the gist of the word is clear and aligns with both recorded definitions.

Today, there are plenty of ways to describe both temperature that is neither cold nor hot (tepid, warmish) and a lack of commitment (indecisive, wishy-washy), but lukewarm remains a go-to term. Almost exclusively, it’s used to denote halfhearted efforts. In sports, City A.M. writes, “Fans give lukewarm response after Bristol Rugby announce rebranding.” In finance, a Bloomberg Quint headline reads, “BofA shares drop with Wall Street analysts lukewarm on results.” And in local politics, the Marin Independent Journal reports, “Golden Gate Transit low-income fare plan gets lukewarm response.”

And occasionally, there’s a cheeky use of the word. Lukewarm is the name of a character from the BBC series Porridge. It’s also in the title of a well-known Radiohead song, “2+2=5 (The Lukewarm), from their 2003 album Hail to the Thief. It’s even the name of a 2012 movie starring Jeremy Jones and John Schneider.

Though lukewarm’s beginnings are still up for discussion, and several replacement words have gained favorability, it seems an uncertain history will have no effect on its future.