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?

  • 10
    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

1 Answer 1


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

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