Hothouse

The green-fingered among you may be familiar with the concept of a hothouse: a heated building, usually made of glass, used for growing delicate plants, for example those which need protection from cold weather. Outside the plant world, the term has acquired another less literal meaning and is used to describe a place or situation that encourages, especially in an intense way, the rapid growth or development of somebody or something, such as ideas, emotions, skills or knowledge, as you can see from these example sentences:

In the hothouse atmosphere of college there are plenty of opportunities for falling in love.

My school was a thrusting hothouse of academic achievement.

The Second World War was a hothouse for technological advance, the military having to innovate to survive; it produced advances in jet engines, radar, and computing, to cite three examples.

When Kierkegaard was twenty-two years old, he made his first foray into this literary hothouse.

Senior faculty scour the world for young researchers, graduate students, and postdoctoral candidates who might thrive in this cross-disciplinary hothouse.

This is not a social club. It is a hothouse where children as young as eight experience tennis, not as a sport in which to dabble and then lose, but as a serious, demanding, aspirational career.

If you have ever experienced the stifling temperatures of a hothouse, filled with flourishing plants, then you will not find it difficult to imagine how the term came to be applied to other similarly intense, or even oppressive, environments conducive to rapid development. Indeed, hothouse is a good example of how a word can evolve from a literal meaning to a figurative meaning. Interestingly, the evolution of hothouse has not stopped there: in its figurative sense, it is no longer used exclusively as a noun but now also as a verb. As a verb, hothouse means to train a child intensively, typically in academic work, music or a sport. It has not yet been added to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online (although it will be in a future update), but is defined in Oxford’s native-speaker dictionary as follows: ‘educate or teach (a child) to a high level at an earlier age than is usual’. It is clear, then, how the verb was derived from the noun.

The often intense or stifling nature of a hothouse in its figurative sense means that it frequently has negative connotations attached to it. That said, the noun can also be used in a neutral or even positive way, as demonstrated by some of the example sentences above. However, as a verb hothouse seems to be predominantly negative: it is used to express disapproval of people or institutions and the way in which they approach child-rearing and instruction. That is to say, people or institutions are accused of hothousing by others – an accusation most would be quick to refute – and it is not generally a word people would use when describing themselves. Take a look at these example sentences:

The former Scottish national tennis coach has launched an online guide to the pitfalls of hothousing sporting prodigies.

‘My programme is the opposite of hothousing,’ she insists.

Sports academies are common in some countries, but many consider their hothousing of developing child athletes as cruel.

Her five year old so doesn’t want to be hothoused and forced into hateful activity after hateful activity.

She would become quite animated on the subject of early education for preschoolers – ‘absurd’ – or if encountering a real atrocity such as hothousing: ‘bloody absurd’.

The ethos of the school is strongly anti-hothouse.

It is important to remember that a hothouse, in the literal sense of the word, is not a natural environment: plants in hothouses are forced to flower or produce fruit earlier than they normally would, or in places where they would not naturally grow at all. It is this unnaturalness which is the crucial link to the negative meaning of hothouse as a verb.

shutterstock-68663449Hothousing is a controversial topic, as a quick Google search for the term attests. Multiple articles warn against the dangers of hothousing, with the suggestion that it does more harm than good and may cause untold damage to children. Advocates of the practice, meanwhile, maintain that hard work and discipline are good for children – certainly better than a laissez-faire attitude to parenting or education in any case – and essential if they are to fulfil their potential, excel in their field and generally make a success of their lives.

Parents who are strict disciplinarians and who push their children to achieve academic success can also be described in another way: tiger mothers or, more broadly, tiger parents. The term tiger mother was popularized in 2011 by Amy Chua in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she described the authoritarian approach she took to raising her own children and the ways in which her daughters responded to her methods. The book, which became a bestseller, caused great controversy, attracting both high praise and severe criticism.

A fearsome tiger is certainly an apt metaphor for a harsh, unyielding parent (and also suggests a parent who is fiercely protective), and we saw earlier how the literal meaning of hothouse makes for a powerful figurative meaning. So, rather than round off this post with my own opinions on hothousing and tiger parenting, I’m going to leave you with another couple of effective metaphorical expressions relating to parents and their children:

helicopter parent
boomerang kid

Consider the literal meanings of the words helicopter and boomerang and see if you can work out what these expressions might mean and how they originated, then follow the links to check your answers in OALD online.


Kallah Pridgeon is a Development Editor in the ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar department at Oxford University Press.

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