Origin of the Word Lukewarm

Today I found out the origin of the word “lukewarm”.

You’ve probably wondered why we have the word “lukewarm” for describing something that is only slightly warm.  Why not “stevewarm” or “beckywarm”?  Well if you didn’t before, hopefully you’re wondering now.

It turns out, while today using “luke” to mean “warm” has gone out of fashion, possibly due to the popularity of the name “Luke”, at one time that’s what the word meant.  This came from the fact that “luke” derived from “lew” or “lewk” or “leuk”, in Middle English, which meant “tepid” (slightly warm).  This in turn came from the Old English adverb “hlēowe”, which means “warm or sunny”.  Finally, “hlēowe” came from the Proto-Germanic *hlēwaz, meaning “warm”.

The word “lukewarm” popped up around the 14th century as meaning “slightly warm”.  Within two centuries, it also began having a figurative meaning, that of “lacking in enthusiasm”.

It isn’t clear where the name “Luke” came from, but it was around long before the English word, “luke”, and even before English. “Luke” received a huge boost in popularity thanks to the publishing of The Gospel of Luke, written around 70-90 AD.

Bonus Facts:

  • Luke is currently the 21st most common male name in England and the 39th most popular male name in the United States.
  • The word “tepid” comes from the Latin “tepidus”, meaning “slightly warm”.  This in turn came from the Proto-Indo-European root “*tep”, meaning “warm”, from the Sanskrit “tapati”, “makes warm, burns, heats”.
  • The Radiohead song “2+2=5” on their Hail to the Theif album has an alternative title, “The Lukewarm”.  The official title of the song is in reference to the doublethink practice exhibited in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, where people are made to believe whatever the Party tells them to believe, even if it conflicts with something else the person knows or was previously made to believe by the Party.
  • “2+2=5” in the book was inspired by a Soviet communist party slogan, which was heavily pushed, referencing the attempt to achieve various five year plans in four years.  The “five year plans” were a series of plans instituted by the Soviet Union to bolster the economy of the nation.  The plans were designed based on the Theory of Productive Forces.  All total there were 13 five year plans put forth from 1928 to 1991, with the last ending in 1995, but never accomplished, due to the Soviet Union ceasing to exist in 1991.
  • Other Soviet ideas borrowed by Orwell to put in 1984 included:
    • The Soviet Union switching from being enemies of Germany to allies after the Treaty of Non-Aggression.  After this signing, the Soviet press was forbidden from writing anything negative about Germany and were not allowed to publish any references to the fact that the two nations used to be enemies, at least, until the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.  This is similar to how Oceania switched from being enemies of Eurasia to allies, making Eastasia the new enemy, who used to be their ally.  After this, “history” was re-written such that Oceania was always allied with Eurasia and always the enemy of Eastasia.
    • Using children as spies for the government was based on the Soviet “Young Pioneer Organization”, 10-15 year olds who, among other things, were tasked with finding enemies of the people by the NKVD (The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, a branch of which (GUGB) was the predecessor to the KGB).  The Young Pioneers were used in this way particularly during The Great Purge from 1936-1938, though the organization existed from 1922-1991.
    • The NKVD was known to have used similar interrogation techniques to the Ministry of Love’s interrogation of Winston Smith.
    • The “Junior Anti-Sex League” was also based on something in a Soviet Youth program, the Komsomol (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League), which discouraged sexual and romantic involvement, due to it interfering with someone’s ability to be dedicated to the Communist Party.  Orwell also used the fact that the Komsomols wore red kerchiefs with his “Junior Anti-Sex League” wearing red sashes.
    • Thought Crime and the Thought Police was based on the NKVD’s practice of arresting people who made anti-Soviet remarks, as well as the Japanese military police, Kempeitai, during WWII who would arrest people if they thought the individual was thinking unpatriotic thoughts.
  • John Hurt played a “Big Brother” type character, Adam Sutler, in V for Vendetta.  In 1984, he played the other end of that role, as Winston Smith, in the movie adaptation of 1984.
  • 1984 was recently cited by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in a case where the U.S. government wanted to be able to continue tracking anyone they wanted via GPS enabled devices without a warrant.  Breyer stated, “If you win this case, then there is nothing to prevent the police or the government from monitoring 24 hours a day the public movement of every citizen of the United States. So if you win, you suddenly produce what sounds like 1984.”
  • The novel 1984 gave us many new words and phrases that are now somewhat common, including: doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, memory hole, Big Brother, unperson, Thought Police, groupthink, Room 101, and, indirectly, “Orwellian”.  The practice of ending common words with “-speak” also comes from 1984, such as with “mediaspeak”.
  • Orwell wrote most of 1984 while extremely ill with tuberculosis.
  • The title for 1984 was originally going to be “The Last Man in Europe”, but was changed to “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to be more commercially acceptable.
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  • Hey
    in german the equivalent is
    ‘lauwarm’, meaning exactly the same and you can clearly see both word having the same origin.
    Thanks for a great blog!

  • Wait, how do you know that Luke experienced a surge in popularity after the titular book? I doubt you have access to name censuses from then…

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Mushyrulez: It has to do with the fact that there are very few references to the name Luke before around the time the Gospel of Luke was published and within a century or two we find numerous reference to people named Luke.

  • Interesting, so good to hear, my dad uses this word a lot, I was thinking it has something to do with Luke in the Bible

  • The name Lucas is a contraction of Lucanus literally “of Lucania,” a district in Lower Italy, home of the Lucani, a branch of the Sabelline race.
    So no, not related to the name.

  • Barbara Waldbillig

    Mr. Hiskey,
    As a point of accuracy, I would like to state that modern biblical scholars now believe the Luke wrote his gospels earlier than 70-90 AD, in particular more likely between the late 50’s and 60’s AD.

    This is based on the lack of references of significat events that occurred in the 70’s AD that would not been omitted by the learned physician and artist, Luke. Luke mostly likely did not comment on the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, which scholars believe occurred in the mid to late 60′ AD, because these very significant events had not yet occurred. Luke also makes no comments about the siege and destruction of Jerusalem in the early 70’s AD other than a reference to Jeseus Christ’s prophesy about the destruction of Jerusalem in Luke (chap 21, version 1-28).

    Luke, author of The Acts of the Apostles, which was written after he wrote his gospels, ends Acts with St. Paul’s ministry while St. Paul was under house arrest in Rome in 63 AD.

    Together, these interpretations place Lukes’s gospels between 50 and late 60 AD.

    BMW 9/12/15

  • Luke–the prefix of lukewarm–is derived from the same germanic roots as the word lee, the connotations being safe, shelter, cover, defense, protection, comfortable & warm. Lukewarm could be seen as being redundant–warm warm, but more accurately it means safely or comfortably warm. It has taken on, with tepid, a negative connotation of something stimulating.

    Another German meaning of luke is that of a hatch to the hold of a ship–a covered, protected space.

    The name Luke is from totally different–& disputed–linguistic roots: some etymological sources state that ‘from Latin Lucas (Greek Loukas), contraction of Lucanus literally “of Lucania,” district in Lower Italy, home of the Lucani, a branch of the Sabelline race’–https://www.etymonline.com/word/luke; while others trace it as deriving from the ‘Latin Lucas, from Ancient Greek (Koine Greek) Λουκᾶς (Loukâs), derivation meaning “the great Lucius” or shortened form of Latin Lucius (“the bright one” or “the one born at dawn”)’, and disputes the derivation of Λουκᾶς (Loukâs) as “man from Lucania” as ‘not supported by reliable sources’–https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Luke.