Hot Potato - Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you looking for an alternative expression for a controversial topic? If so, you could call it a "hot potato." This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.


The expression "hot potato" refers to a controversial topic and people's unwillingness to approach it or tackle it. Typically, it's a topic that invokes strong responses from other people, such as religion and politics.

A hot potato can also mean a situation where it's challenging to diffuse it without causing controversy and angst in other people. It can also refer to a contentious matter that people don't want to discuss.

The phrase "hot potato" can also refer to something hot or difficult to handle. When you're using the expression, you'll describe other people's conversations or yours. The phrase is also suited to use at home or work.

For instance, if you're talking about stock take being a "hot potato," it might mean that no one wants to do the task or that there is controversy surrounding the stocktake results. If you can't talk about politics with your friends because they end up arguing with you, the topic is a hot potato.

Example Usage

"The inflation issue is turning into a hot potato topic in the US. The president doesn't want to talk about it because it's going to ruin his reelection chances."

"The legal status of abortion is a hot potato topic for leaders in all communities around the United States."

"I never bring up religion at a dinner party. It's a hot potato and sure to cause an argument with someone."

The party refuses to comment on the ongoing situation. It's a hot potato, and they don't want to open that can of worms."

"That girl is a real hot potato. They're passing her around, and no one seems to want her."


The origin of the term "hot potato" comes from the mid-1800s. It is a derivative of the older saying, "to drop like a hot potato." The meaning of the two sayings is identical, and they both refer to abandoning someone or something quickly and unexpectedly.

The term "hot potato" or "drop it like a hot potato" first appeared in print in 1824. It also became a popular game with kids where someone would pull a hot potato out of the pot and pass it around between friends. The player that dropped the hot potato or failed to catch it was the loser.

Phrases Similar to Hot Potato

  • Musical chairs.
  • No one wants to touch it.

Phrases Opposite to Hot Potato

  • Blasé topic of discussion.
  • Non-relevant item.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Hot potato.

Ways People May Say Hot Potato Incorrectly

The phrase has nothing to do with hot potatoes. The potato in this expression is a topic of discussion or an item or a person. Using the term to describe handling a hot potato or potato-related item is the incorrect use of the expression.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Hot Potato

You can use the phrase "hot potato" when you're referring to controversial issues or items in your life. For instance, you could call geopolitical issues that no politician wants to address a hot potato. You could call a hot item in your hands a hot potato. You could also use the saying to refer to other people, as in "they are a hot potato." There are plenty of variations in how you can use this idiomatic expression. However, the most common use in social and professional situations is to describe a topic or issue that causes controversy when people discuss it.

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