I was reading the Harpo Marx entry in Wikipedia a few weeks ago and noticed this odd bit of information in the “Legacy” section of the article.
Harpo, who was frequently invited to parties thrown by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, has been credited with coining the term “hot seat” after he noticed that when Hearst disliked a guest, he would seat the guest at the far end of the long table nearest the fireplace and never invite them back.
That struck me as suspicious. (It did have a “citation needed” note at the end of the sentence.) So I decided to check.
The Wikipedia article was correct that Harpo was credited as coining the term. According to a California news article, it’s a story told by tour guides at the Hearst Castle. But crediting someone with having said something doesn’t make it so.
In fact, it didn’t take me long to find a use of the term from 1920, almost a decade before the Marx Brothers’ first film and certainly before Harpo would have been invited to one of Hearst’s parties. It was in reference to the White House aspirations of Warren G. Harding, a few months before he was elected president.
That seemed to fit the OED’s second definition of “hot seat”: A position of responsibility, esp. one in which difficulties are faced and towards which public attention is directed. But OED cited the earliest use of the term in that sense as from 1930, 10 years after the use above.
OED’s earliest citation for its first definition of “hot seat” — a colloquialism for the electric chair — is from 1925. So could that be the origin of or inspiration for the expression, even it it came about earlier than the OED has it?
Well, apparently not. There are much earlier examples of “hot seat” as a difficult or uncomfortable position, including examples from the 1870s and 1880s and even this one, about another U.S. President, James Buchanan, escaping the “hot seat of government” on vacation at Niagara Falls in 1857.
The use of “hot seat” for the electric chair occurs more than two decades before the 1925 date given by OED, but well after the earliest metaphorical use the term. The earliest uses I could find of “hot seat” for the electric chair were in two newspapers articles from 1901.
One, in June, used the term in a headline about the execution of a man convicted of killing a Cleveland police officer. The other, from September, is about Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of President McKinley. (That’s three presidents in this one exploration of this term!) The article describes Czolgosz in his cell where graffiti left by a previous prisoner laments, in rhyme, the certainty of his own “red-hot seat.” (Czolgosz himself died in the electric chair a month later.)
The term “electric chair” for a form of execution, by the way, dates from 1883, the year such a device was first patented. The term was used much earlier, but for supposed medical cures for various maladies.