Meaning of Hot Potato
When we say something is a hot potato, we are referring to something that is controversial, awkward, embarrassing, difficult, or unpleasant to deal with and which people want to avoid. We often refer, as well, to a ‘political hot potato.’ Either term is in most often used in reference to a public issue. But, the idiom can also refer to a person who is disagreeable or unpleasant. Examples of how ‘hot potato’ might be used are:
We might say, for example, “Abortion was a hot potato subject during the last election.” How did the term come to be used in this way? Why a potato, and not some other object?
Drop Like a Hot Potato
There may be a clue in the related idiom ‘to drop something like a hot potato.’ It is a verb phrase which means to quickly disassociate yourself with something that is controversial, embarrassing, difficult, etc. To quickly abandon a person, pursuit, or thing. This idiom uses a hot potato as a metaphor for something that was handed to you or something which has been thrown into your lap, but which you want to get rid of as quickly as possible so as not to get ‘burned.’ A hot potato could be social, political, personal, etc. Examples of how this phrase might be used are:
“All she wanted to do was change me. I dropped her like a hot potato.”
“As soon as he found out that his contributor was involved in a racist organization, he dropped him like a hot potato.”
Hot Potato in Baseball, Basketball, and Football
The term hot potato is also used in baseball to indicate a ball that is thrown, kicked, or batted so hard that a receiving player cannot catch it. Further, in baseball, if a ball is thrown mistakenly to an umpire when there are runners still on base, the umpire will treat the ball like it is a ‘hot potato’ and try not to catch it, since it is still in play.
Origin Of Hot Potato Expression
You may have noticed that baked potatoes are not only very hot to the touch, but they retain their heat for a long time, probably due to their water content and their thick skin. Therefore, people are always very cautious when handling them. Both idioms conjure up images of someone handing you a hot potato. You would have to try to get rid of it so quickly you did not get burned, or avoid the potato altogether. This metaphor was first used in the 1800’s.
There is a children’s game called hot potato which involves playing catch with some object such a bean bag and pretending it is a hot potato, with music playing. The object is to catch it and throw it to the next player as quickly as possible, always keeping the ‘potato’ moving and to try not to be the one holding the potato when the music stops. There are different versions of this game, however.