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The heat is on

Posted by ESC on June 02, 2001

Continuing a discussion from the "other side."

I'm a writer, and am looking for the origin (year) of the phrase "The heat is on." I have my gangster
: : character saying "Is the heat on?" to another character, but am not sure if they would have said
: : this during the time of WWI--specifically 1917. Thanks in advance for any help you can give me.
: : If possible,I'd also appreciate the reference. (Book, article, etc.) Thanks and God bless-- Pamela

From ESC: TO TURN THE HEAT ON -- "This seems originally to have been underworld slang, probably a rough interpretation of 'to be grilled' in the figurative sense. It means, to be subjected to a severe cross-examination, as by police officers in grilling a suspected criminal; but of course in ordinary use a youngster will say that his dad turned the heat on when asking how the fender of the car got dented. The expression is quite recent." From "A Hog on Ice & other Curious Expressions" by Charles Earle Funk (Harper & Row, New York, 1948). Notice that Mr. Funk says the expression is "recent," but the book was published in 1948. If I find an earlier origin date, I'll post it.

From R. Berg: The Dictionary of American Slang has "c. 1925" as the date for underworld use of "heat" in that sense. 1917 might be too early. In fact, considering that the Volstead Act was passed in 1919, 1917 is early for gangsters. What would they have done all day?

ESC: "Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Volume 2, H-O" by J.E. Lighter, Random House, New York, 1994: HEAT 2a. intensive law-enforcement activity in the form of investigation, patrols, arrests, etc., danger from or pursuit by police.1925 Collier's (Aug. 8) 30: Police agitation is "heat.".2b. Und. & Mil. (underworld and military) gunfire in phrase GIVE (or TURN ON) THE HEAT - to fire a gun at someone. 1930 Rosener 'Doorway to Hell" (film): I oughta give ya a little of that heat just for luck."