From dinner to disarray: the origin of “mess”

Originally, we didn’t make messes. We ate them. 

In his presser yesterday, Trump claimed: “To be honest, I inherited a mess. It’s a mess. At home, and abroad — a mess.” Clearly, he was describing his own news conference, which was a hot one, because the facts just don’t back him up. But Trump does raise an interesting etymological question: Where do we inherit the word mess from?

porridge.jpg
Mess: Get it whiles it’s hot. Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

On the table

English first serves up mess around 1300. Back then, it named “food for one meal.” The word comes into English from the Old French mes (Modern French metsand, before it, the Latin missus, a “portion of food” or “a course at dinner.” This etymological idea of “a serving” explains why we use mess as a general term for some loose “quantity,” particularly food, e.g., a mess of greens.

In Latin, missus literally means something “placed” or “put” – here, food on the table. The root verb is mittere, which shifted from “send” in Classical Latin to “place or put” in the language’s later years. Mittere has also delivered bundles of English words, from mass and mission to commit and promise

Getting into a “mess”

Over the centuries, mess lost its Michelin stars, so to speak. By the 1400s, mess referred to goopy foods like porridge, hence the biblical idiom mess of pottage.  (Today, we might recognize such a mess as the pasty gruel often plated up to ravenous children in the hellish summer camps of TV and movies.) This sense lead to a kind of “mixed, liquid slop fed to animals” in the 1700s. Alexander Pope, as an early instance, mocks metaphorical hogs chowing down on mess in his 1738 “Epilogue to the Satires.”

Simposons gruel.jpg
What a mess: “Nine out of ten orphans can’t tell the difference.” Image courtesy of frinkiac.com, from The Simpsons, Season 4/Episode 1, “Kamp Krusty.”

And it’s from this notion of a nasty, mushy mixture that we get the modern mess: the senses of “jumble,” “confusion,” and “untidiness” emerge in the written record around the 1810s. Offshoots like mess up, make a mess of, and messy appear by the 1830-40s. To mess around, playfully or idly, is attested by the 1850s. Sexually? We’ve been messing around since at least the 1890s. 

“Mess” mates

The food sense of mess, though, kept cooking. In the 1400s, mess also referred to “a company of people who took their meal together,” especially military personnel in groups of four. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare mentions “a mess of Russians,” referring not to all the controversies surrounding the Trump administration, but to the four noble lovers in disguise.

From “dining companion,” mess later extended to the food and building where soldiers ate, thus compounds like mess bag, mess cook, messmate, mess hall, and hot mess.

Not-so-hot, new slang

Yes, a hot mess was a originally a warm meal, especially a soft, porridge-like mixture (as we previously saw) ladled out in mess halls. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a figurative use of in a hot mess, or “in a challenging situation,” in the 1860s. And the modern slang hot mess, “someone or something in extreme confusion or disorder,” has first been found from one P.J. Conlon in an 1899 Monthly Journal International Association Machinists: “Verily, I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.” Nowadays, hot serves to intensify the sense of messiness.

Merriam-Webster Associate Editor Emily Brewster has more on the history of hot mess – ever the apt phrase in our political moment, no matter what Trump wants to tell us, or himself – in her terrific video.

m ∫ r ∫

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