hot potato


a hot potato


  • refers to a controversial or sensitive topic that people avoid discussing.
  • describe a situation or issue that is difficult to handle or resolve, often passed from person to person like a hot potato.
  • also signify a sudden and urgent problem that requires immediate attention.
  • represents something risky or challenging, akin to holding onto a burning hot potato.
  • a project or responsibility that nobody wants to deal with due to its complexity or potential consequences.

Example Sentences

  1. The topic of religious beliefs can often be a hot potato, with individuals having sensitive feelings.
  2. The debate over tax reform became a political hot potato, with both parties reluctant to address it head-on.
  3. The CEO’s resignation turned into a corporate hot potato as the board scrambled to find a replacement.
  4. Bringing up the topic of office gossip was like tossing a hot potato into the staff meeting.
  5. The issue of climate change has become a global hot potato, with nations struggling to find common ground.
  6. The controversial proposal to cut funding for public schools became a legislative hot potato, sparking heated debates among lawmakers.

Origin and History

The idiom “hot potato” has a fascinating origin and history. It was first introduced in the English language around the early 19th century, originally derived from the phrase “drop something like a hot potato.” This expression metaphorically describes the swift and immediate abandonment of something deemed undesirable or contentious, much like dropping a hot potato due to its heat. Over time, this phrase evolved into the standalone idiom “hot potato.”

The first documented instance of this phrase can be found in Joseph Donaldson’s memoir, “Recollections of an Eventful Life: Mostly Spent in the Army by a Soldier,” published in 1824.

“I attempted to help myself to some corn, which was lying in a basket.—”Drop that like a hot potato,” said one of the Connaught Rangers.”

Hotchpotatoe Theory

The earliest example of the idiom “hot potato” that we can trace back is found in Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence from 1817. In a letter dated February 16, 1817, Jefferson wrote:

“I consider the true picture of the American System, it’s design and object to be an abandonment of the republican principle, and the substitution of monarchical and aristocratical forms, differing from Europe only in the perpetuity of the body, ejecting themselves occasionally, and entering, at other times, into hotchpotatoe with the merchant adventurers of England.”

Here, Jefferson uses the term “hotchpotatoe,” which is an early variation of “hot potato,” to describe a situation involving economic and political entanglements with England. While not an exact match to the modern idiom, the usage suggests a similar metaphorical concept of something being quickly passed around or dealt with to avoid negative consequences.

Greek Origins Theory

Few linguists believe that the idiom “Hot Potato” originated in ancient Greece. Legend has it that Greek soldiers used to play this game during their downtime as a way to unwind and foster camaraderie. Interestingly, the humble potato, a beloved source of energy and culinary delight since ancient times, played a central role. When soldiers found themselves in remote, wooded areas, they would often carry potatoes with them, roasting and enjoying them as a snack. Over time, this simple pastime was adopted by children from the soldiers, eventually becoming a timeless game that continues to captivate both young and old alike.

Children’s Game

It’s also believed that there is a direct connection between the idiom “hot potato” and the children’s game “hot potato,” and it sounds entirely possible that the idiom and the game share a common origin in a metaphorical sense, even though they involve different contexts and actions.

In the children’s game “hot potato,” participants pass a real or imaginary object, typically a potato or a ball, quickly among themselves while music plays. When the music stops, the player holding the object is eliminated from the game. The goal is to avoid being the one left holding the “hot potato” when the music stops.

This game’s concept of swiftly passing an object to avoid being caught with it aligns metaphorically with the idiom “hot potato.” In both cases, there’s a sense of urgency and discomfort associated with holding on to something undesirable. In the game, it’s the fear of losing; in the idiom, it’s dealing with a contentious issue or situation.

Share your opinions5 Opinions

The key thing about this idiom, that is missing here, is that the hot potato is something that no one wants to deal with and it gets passed from person to person or organisation to organisation, or similar. This is why it is a *hot* potato, no one wants to hold it for long.

‒ Jacqui (native British speaker) June 22, 2023

How did the phrase turn into a children’s game?

‒ Anonymous April 7, 2022

Can we use this for people?

‒ Shabistan September 3, 2020

Hello Manal,
More formal ways of saying: It’s a hot potato, are:

  • It’s a controversial subject.
  • It’s a sensitive subject.
  • It’s likely to cause disagreement.
  • It could upset people.
  • It’s risky for everyone involved.

‒ Fiona Mackenzie December 18, 2017

Is there is any other idiom that is equal to the meaning of hot potato but formal?

‒ Manal December 18, 2017

What's on your mind?

, , ,