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Longman tells me that melt is a regular verb, and molten is simply an adjective. But in the irregular verb appendix of the Shanghai High School English Exam Vocabulary word book, molten is the past participle of melt, which leads me into confusion.

Infinitive: melt. Past Tense: melted. Past Participle: melted, molten

How would you explain this? Are there differences between molten and melted?

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    What 'word book'? Title and author, please. Is it online? Can you give a link? Aug 29, 2022 at 10:22
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    What is a word book??
    – Lambie
    Aug 29, 2022 at 15:47
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    A word book is of course a dictionary-glossary-lexicon thingy. (German for "dictionary" is Wörterbuch, literally "words book".)
    – MJD
    Aug 29, 2022 at 19:05
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    Here's the Wiktionary discussion of this suffix. Note that English has other -en suffixes that are unrelated to this one, such as the ones in "children" or "redden".
    – MJD
    Aug 29, 2022 at 19:18
  • I'll make it clearer. The work book, which I mentioned here, refered to the high school Shanghai High School English Exam Vocabulary Handbook. This handbook lists all the vocabulary that is likely to be examined in the College Entrance Examination (sort of GCSE) and it has a list of irregular verbs. (Sadly, I havn't got an online edition) According to the nice answers below, I 've already learned that molten is improper to appear at the 'past participle' column of 'melt', or at least in some way out-of-date. Already e-mailed the editor of the handbook. Aug 30, 2022 at 0:22

3 Answers 3

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'Molten' is not the past participle of 'melt' in modern English, although that may be the etymology of the word. It now describes a state of matter, namely that it has been heated to very high temperatures to turn a solid into liquid state.

It is only really noteworthy when a substance is not in its usual state. For example, people tend to expect nitrogen to be a gas, so when it is in liquid state we nearly always refer to it as 'liquid nitrogen'. Likewise, 'molten metal' or 'molten rock' are noteworthy because they are normally solid.

This is somewhat in contrast with the way 'melted' is used. When you note that something has melted, it is usually because it was solid when frozen or refrigerated, but subsequently thawed into a liquid in warmer temperatures. 'Molten' is more likely to refer to something that remains a solid even in warm temperatures and must be deliberately subjected to very intense heat to change its state of matter to a liquid. Nobody would ever say 'molten ice' - they would say it had melted. In cooking, we do refer to butter melted in a pan as 'melted butter' but this isn't really an exception - it doesn't require extreme temperatures to cause butter to melt; in fact it can often melt itself at some room temperatures.

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    Molten' is not the past tense of 'melt' That's true only in current English. molten is indeed the archaic form of the past participle of melt. Someone reading some non-contemporary literary work could well find that molten is used as a participle. Aug 30, 2022 at 13:05
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    @LorenzoDonatisupportUkraine agreed. I didn't really think archaic english was needed, as the OP was asking about usage, not etymology. However, I've added a note about that into my answer now.
    – Astralbee
    Aug 30, 2022 at 14:30
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    @Astralbee Just being a noodge here, but "superheated" in your answer should be just "heated." (This is ELL after all, and words matter ; ). A superheated solid has been raised above its melting point but prevented from melting by some means. If a solid is heated and it melts at its melting point, it was not superheated at all, it was just heated.
    – MTA
    Aug 30, 2022 at 15:44
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    "Melted plastic" or "molten plastic"? I would say, 1) melted can be used for everything, 2) molten can only be used for some things, 3) for some specific things, molten is preferred to melted, but this is verging on archaic since we now know that the process of, e.g., stone melting is the same as the process of ice melting, just at higher temperature. Aug 30, 2022 at 17:06
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    "Nobody would ever say 'molten ice'" Nice! I'm adding this to my list of Confusing Phrases to be Used Randomly.
    – Grault
    Aug 31, 2022 at 19:19
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Molten was formerly a past participle of melt: (the OED says "Middle English– molten (now archaic)".

In modern use it is only an adjective.

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    Compare "break" / "broken", "speak" / "spoken", or "smite" / "smitten".
    – MJD
    Aug 29, 2022 at 19:05
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    And archaically, "help" / "holpen".
    – Colin Fine
    Aug 29, 2022 at 19:08
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    An archaic example that is still in use is "seethe" / "sodden".
    – MJD
    Aug 29, 2022 at 19:09
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    For certain values of "in use". Like "molten", "sodden" has parted company with its verb, and exists only as an adjective, with a meaning not obviously related to "seethe".
    – Colin Fine
    Aug 29, 2022 at 19:24
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    Yes, that's what I meant. The words are still in use, but their relationship is archaic.
    – MJD
    Aug 29, 2022 at 19:29
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Normally, only viscous liquids with a very high melting-point are molten, especially when something that’s normally very solid gets so hot that it changes and becomes hazardous, like molten rock, molten iron or molten glass. Discussions of nuclear accidents often talk about “the molten core.” We never say *molten water, *molten ice, or even *molten butter. (Edit: Michael Harvey found a news story from British Columbia that referred to “molten butter used as a weapon” in Canadian prisons. I stand corrected, but I think this illustrates the point that something molten is dangerous.)

One important way that molten is like an adjective and melted is a past participle: something that melts and then cools and becomes solid again still is/has been melted, but is no longer molten.

The word is sometimes used in literary or poetic ways. For example, English translations of the Bible call a bronze basin filled with water that once stood in a temple in Jerusalem “the Molten Sea” (translating a Hebrew term that means something like, “sea of cast metal”).

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    If there was a disaster in (say) a biscuit factory I can imagine an excitable reporter writing "Dozens of hapless workers perished as a tide of molten butter engulfed them when a tank ruptured'. Aug 30, 2022 at 6:41
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    After making up that rather fanciful (I thought) example, I found this from a story about prison violence in British Columbia (Canada): "One of the most troubling attacks is the use of molten butter as a weapon to burn other inmates, said Dean Purdy, a spokesman for the union representing prison guards". Aug 30, 2022 at 11:30
  • @MichaelHarvey That is interesting. I had checked Google Ngrams and found “molten butter” at a low enough background level that most of the hits are false positives, but apparently people do sometimes say “molten butter” when it’s not supposed to be melted, and dangerous.
    – Davislor
    Aug 30, 2022 at 13:32
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    I kind of think molten is scary, (lava, tar, metal) whereas melted could be homely and nice (butter, cheese, chocolate). Aug 30, 2022 at 13:36
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    @MichaelHarvey Right. That’s an important part of the connotation that the other answers, good as they are, left out: something molten is dangerous because of its high temperature, but melted is a neutral scientific term.
    – Davislor
    Aug 30, 2022 at 13:56

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