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If you've ever faced intense scrutiny from a superior or felt compelled to defend your actions, you can honestly say you've been put in the hot seat. The term could also apply to a witness undergoing a hostile cross-examination or a corporate official called to a congressional hearing. Being in the hot seat is rarely enjoyable for the sitter, although some may welcome the opportunity to defend an action or to prove the interrogators wrong.
There are a number of theories concerning the origin of this term. Several sources trace the original use back to the 1930s, when the electric chair was still a favored form of capital punishment. The electrified chair at the end of Death Row soon became known as the "hot seat," and prisoners who sat in it were about to face their ultimate punishment. There are a few difficulties with this theory, however, since prisoners facing execution were not scheduled to return, unlike the figurative "hot seat," which does allow for survivors.
Another theory concerning the origins of the term also comes from the days of intensive police interrogations. In an attempt to break the will of a suspect, detectives would often use bright lights during questioning. The technique would not only prevent the suspect from viewing his interrogators, but would also create a very hot, uncomfortable environment. Perhaps the idea of facing these harsh, hot lights during an interrogation formed the basis for the figurative "hot seat."
A few sources take the idea one step further. There is some evidence that military interrogators would occasionally use a special seat for more obstinate detainees. This seat would be wired with electrical heating elements, thus creating a literal "hot seat" for maximum discomfort. Other interrogation techniques involved delivering a series of painful electric shocks through a rigged seat.
Whatever the true origin of the term, it is probably better to be out of one than in one. Similar phrases may include being in the crosshairs, being in the line of fire and being called on the carpet.
I searched out this article today after reading an entry in a mythology encyclopedia about a "witches' chair" used to extract "confessions" from prisoners during witch trials in the 17th Century in Bamberg, Germany. The chair was "...made of iron...covered with studs and heated over a fire." (Stuart Gordon, The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends, pp. 736-737. Headline Book Publishing, 1993)
Perhaps the expression could have earlier roots than those posited in the sources cited here.
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