An idiom a day keeps your English okay! In this series we examine English idioms and teach you how to use them.
A Hot Potato
A hot potato is a potato that is hot. If you try to pick up the potato you will get burned. There are worse pains than picking up a hot potato. For example, banging your head on a cupboard door is much more painful. Still, it isn’t pleasant and so if there are many potatoes on the table you should choose one that isn’t hot.
There is a game you can play at parties (if you don’t have anything else to do) where you play some music and people throw a potato to one another. When the music stops, the person holding the potato is the loser. Does it sound fun to you? Yes? Then you’re an idiot.
We use this idiom to talk about controversial topics. The big political issue when I wrote this text was immigration. Too many foreign people coming into our country. Too many foreigners taking our jobs. Too many foreign children in our schools. Which country am I talking about? All of them!
Anyway, that is the political hot potato and most politicians don’t want to talk about it. The truth is that immigration is mostly good for a country, but normal people in the street don’t understand that. Why should they understand it? It’s complicated and while it might be good for the whole country, it can be bad for that person. So it’s complicated and it makes people angry and the politician doesn’t want to be the only one talking about how wonderful immigration is.
You can use the phrase ‘hot potato’ for anything awkward or delicate. When I was young I had an uncle who had three arms. He had two normal arms like a normal person, but he also had an extra arm that was growing out from one elbow. Now this uncle REALLY hated immigrants and would always complain about them and make horrible jokes. So I never used to talk about foreigners when he was around. (He didn’t mind talking about this third arm though. That wasn’t a hot potato topic.)
Real Life Examples
– I think we should close the factory and move all the jobs to China.
– So I can buy a bigger house!
– So can we do it?
– I’d like to, but outsourcing is a bit of a hot potato in this company.
– Our biggest shareholder is the grandson of the founder and he wants to keep the factory local. When he dies we can do what we want.
– I’ll go and buy some arsenic.
– Oh, you’re too funny.
– Now, before you go in to see your uncle, I have to warn you about something.
– What? Is he going to die?
– Not if we can help it. No, it’s just I’d like it if you didn’t mention Christmas while you’re in there.
– Why on earth not?
– It’s become a bit of a hot potato.
– Well, Christmas movies actually. The doctor said that the best Christmas movie was Die Hard, and your uncle said it was It’s a Wonderful Life, and they both got quite angry. It’s bad for your uncle’s blood pressure so if you didn’t talk about Christmas, that would be better.