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Hot on your heels

Posted by Smokey Stover on December 02, 2007

In Reply to: Hot on your heels posted by Frankvan on December 02, 2007

: Where did the phrase "Hot on your heels" come from>

The primary meaning of "hot" obviously has to do with temperature. But a secondary meaning, keen or enthusiastic, is also old, older than modern English, in which "warmth" of a kind is at play. In hunting, too, warmth may be at play, in such phrases as hot on the trail, hot on the scent, or a hot scent, a hot trail, and by extension a hot lead, a hot clue. I mentioned "hot lead" thinking of detectives engaged in law enforcement, hunting down crooks. But a hot lead, to an electrician, is the wire in which the current is active, and "hot" is often used to describe an alternative which is active as opposed to one which is not.

The Oxford English Dictionary does not mention specifically "hot on the heels," so far as I was able to discover, although it mentions a few close relatives in the field of hunting.

"8. Technical uses. a. Hunting. Of the scent: Strong, intense; opp. to COLD a. 12. to get (or be) hot: in a game or pursuit, to come (or be) near the discovery of something concealed. Also transf.
Hence, in nursery and parlour games which involve searching or guessing on the part of some of the players, hot means close on the track of the object hidden or the solution to be guessed.

[Examples cited:] 1648 MILTON Tenure Kings 60 Hungrie Church~wolves following the hot sent of double Livings. 1781 W. BLANE Ess. Hunt. 111 The scent lying hotter, and encreasing. 1875 W. S. HAYWARD Love agst. World 5 He could halloo them off the hottest scent that ever lay on Warwickshire grass. 1876 [see COLD a. 12b]. 1879 TOURGEE Fool's Err. xliv. 326 A pack of hounds running on a hot trail. 1882 Cassell's Bk. In-Door Amusem. (ed. 2) 29 The progress of the player is usually announced by assuring him that he is 'very cold', 'cold', 'warmer', 'warm', 'hot', 'very hot', or 'burning', according as he is far from or near to the article to be discovered. 1899 E. W. HORNUNG Amat. Cracksman 252 'Not there, not there,' said Raffles; 'but you're getting hot. Try the cartridges.' 1931 Times Lit. Suppl. 29 Oct. 832/4 He needs it [sc. personality] to act quickly and effectively when an appliance fails, or when an investigator gets 'hot'."

It seems to me that this definition, with these citations, would also cover hot pursuit, hot on the scent, hot on the trail and hot on the heels of. The definition also mention childern's games, in which "you're getting warm" means youre getting close.

Although in the OED the use of "hot" in the sense of "hot on the scent" is not cited from before the 17th century, showing the heels when running away appears earlier.

"[s.v. heel] 3 c. heels: as the hindmost parts displayed by a fugitive; hence as the means of flight. to have or get the heels of: to outrun.

"[citations:] 1523 LD. BERNERS Froiss. I. cli. 180 Suche as had their horses by them mounted and shewed their horses heles, and thenglysshmen after them in chase. 1583 STUBBES Anat. Abus. I. 96 He showes them a faire pair of heeles, and away goeth he. . . ."

In sum, "hot on the heels" appears to come from hunting vocabulary, reflecting the heat of the chase, that is, of the excitement involved. It later evolved to reflect the nearness of something, as though in a chase.