Are we using the word "temper" correctly?

Usually when someone is said to "have a temper", we interpret that to mean they are quick to anger or are prone to outbursts of anger.

However I'm wondering if this is the wrong way around. To "temper" something usually means to cool it down or quench it. A temperate climate is cool but not too cold.

Indeed we also say of someone who had a particular bout of anger that they "lost their temper".

So if someone "has a temper", should that not mean they are cool headed or good at keeping calm in the face of provocation?

  • 11
    Whether it 'should' or not makes no difference to the way language is used. I suppose 'having a temper' is short for 'having a bad or a quick temper'.
    – Kate Bunting
    Sep 16, 2019 at 8:03
  • 5
    Very often we say someone has a bad temper, and someone is good-tempered
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 16, 2019 at 8:04
  • In metallurgy, tempering is a process involving heat.
    – nnnnnn
    Sep 16, 2019 at 10:35
  • 4
    Language is what it is, not what somebody thinks it ought to be.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 16, 2019 at 10:44
  • 1
    @nnnnnn - indeed, but in a very controlled manner - and the process is to reduce brittleness.
    – komodosp
    May 7, 2020 at 12:28

3 Answers 3


Think of temper as a measurement, rather than a state. It's rather like the related word, 'temperature'. It's possible to have a 'good temper', a 'bad temper', a 'mild temper', and many other variations (see 'more example sentences).

To add to the 'temperature' analogy, the word is commonly used thus:

She had a temperature, so had to stay at home.

It implies that her temperature was high, because that's how it's most commonly used. The same can be said for temper:

What a temper she has!

This implies that her temper is bad (not temperate, if you will. Possibly temperamental). This is also because without a modifier, you can assume it means the negative sense.

  • 2
    You simply restate the OP's question in different words. However I do agree with @Colin Fine's point that "language is what it is, not what someone thinks it should be".
    – WS2
    Sep 16, 2019 at 16:14

I think the problem is your understanding of what tempering is in relation to metalworking.

Quenching a hot piece of metal is not tempering; it is hardening.

Tempering is taking a piece of metal and raising the temperature to a level high enough to relieve the stresses in the hardened metal, but lower than the temperature required to work it with a hammer/tool, and then slowly cooling it down.

So, it makes sense that if someone has a temper and it means they metaphorically get hot and are slow to cool down.


Logically, I believe you are correct: a "temper" is a good thing that should not be lost, and "having (a) temper" taken literally means roughly the same as "having self-control": it should make you calm. However, in modern usage, "Having a temper" is always shorthand for "having a bad temper", as in poor self-control, specifically poor control over anger.

Older literature sometimes described people as "temperate", meaning "controlled" or "moderate". There are a few examples in the King James version of the Bible, for instance. Similarly, Mirriam-Webster has "a suitable proportion or balance of qualities : a middle state between extremes" as an "archaic" meaning of temper.

It is this sense of temper that you see in a temperate climate: not too hot or too cold, but moderate. Similarly, tempering metal means achieving the desired balance between hardness and brittleness: making a tool that can hold an edge without shattering requires significant skill for a blacksmith, or careful design and control in a foundry.

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