Definition of steam in English:

Share this entry


Pronunciation: /stēm/


1The vapor into which water is converted when heated, forming a white mist of minute water droplets in the air.
Example sentences
  • He came out of the bathroom a few minutes after trailing steam and heated droplets of water.
  • Matt moved to the front of the car and picked up the hood to unleash another huge cloud of white steam.
  • Without warning a cloud of white steam poured forth from the rock wall in front of her, and she lost her footing momentarily.
water vapor, condensation, mist, haze, fog, moisture
1.1The invisible gaseous form of water, formed by boiling, from which vapor condenses.
Example sentences
  • For example, when you boil water, it takes the gaseous form of steam, but this gas doesn't react with oxygen in the air.
  • Touted by some as water's purest form, distilled water is produced by condensing steam from boiled water back into its liquid state.
  • This signals something called a phase transition, like when steam cools and condenses into water.
1.2The expansive force of steam used as a source of power for machines: the equipment was originally powered by steam [as modifier]: a steam train
More example sentences
  • Murrays' Mills in Ancoats are 200 years old and were among the first buildings in the world to use steam to power machines.
  • With the arrival of steam as a power source, doctors could treat hysteria in the office using new devices developed for this purpose.
  • They can be cut and burnt to produce steam to power turbines.
1.3Locomotives and railroad systems powered by steam: the last years of steam
More example sentences
  • For generations, its very name has conjured up the glory days of Britain's railways when steam was king and every town had a station.
1.4Energy and momentum or impetus: the anticorruption drive gathered steam
More example sentences
  • One of their big players got up a head of steam and charged at me.
  • Hence I hit the mike with a full head of steam, overcharged and full of momentum.
  • As it gathered steam, I was greatly impressed with several moments, but a corny line or an awkward coincidence was always around the bend.
energy, vigor, vitality, stamina, enthusiasm;
momentum, impetus, force, strength, thrust, impulse, push, drive;
speed, pace


1 [no object] Give off or produce steam: a mug of coffee was steaming at her elbow
More example sentences
  • As I type, an angry thunderstorm is rolling across the skies and the rain is lashing down onto the scorched pavements; now gently steaming.
  • As my train arrived, the monsoon abruptly stopped, the sun came out, leaving me gently steaming on platform five at Reading.
  • You'll get delicate, herb-infused fish steamed gently in their own juices.
1.1 (steam up or steam something up) Become or cause to become covered or misted over with steam: the glass keeps steaming up [with object]: the warm air had begun to steam up the windows
More example sentences
  • The windows were steamed up and Mr Palmer was inside.
  • The windows are steamed up, streaming the condensed exhaled breath of all and sundry, including the alcoholic who's presently drooling on your new coat.
  • We would neck in the car until the windows were steamed up with our passion.
1.2 (often be/get steamed up) informal Be or become extremely agitated or angry: you got all steamed up over nothing! after steaming behind the closed door in his office, he came out and screamed at her
2 [with object] Cook (food) by heating it in steam from boiling water: steam the vegetables until just tender
More example sentences
  • Remove the plastic wrap and steam the bread until cooked.
  • Place the dumplings on the prepared steaming rack and steam the dumplings until the skins are soft, about 15 minutes.
  • Just brown the pasta in oil first, add broth and cook until the pasta is tender, then steam some seafood quickly on top.
2.1 [no object] (Of food) cook by being heated in steam from boiling water: add the mussels and leave them to steam
More example sentences
  • There is not a human being in sight but food still steams on a cooker inviting the hungry parents with its aromas.
  • With the flavours intensifying as the food simultaneously steams and roasts, and no juices lost or boiled away, the end result is bags of flavour (sorry).
  • Yellow rice wine, pork meat steamed on lotus leaves, eight ingredients cake and zongzi are the specialities of Xitang and you can taste them in all the restaurants in the town.
2.2Clean or otherwise treat with steam: he steamed his shirts in the bathroom to remove the wrinkles
More example sentences
  • It may help to steam clean carpeting at least once a year.
  • My ex-brother-in-law worked in a western wear store and had his hats cleaned and creased by a fellow who steamed the headgear and shaped the brim along the curves of his own beer belly.
  • We put in new mahogany faces on the bar counters, re-varnished the tables, steam cleaned the carpets, had the chairs recovered and put in new curtains.
2.3 [with object and complement or adverbial] Apply steam to (something fixed with adhesive) so as to open or loosen it: he’d steamed the letter open and then resealed it
More example sentences
  • You can get to know them even better if you steam the letters open first.
  • He went to the kitchen and boiled water, then took the letter and steamed the envelope open so as not to damage it.
  • Carefully, in case she found that she needed to reseal it, she steamed the envelope open and peeled away the fold.
2.4Operate (a steam locomotive).
Example sentences
  • Myth and symbol, however, attach less readily to an elemental melange: it is an iron horse that steamed its way across the American plain, the iron fist that represents a display of might.
3 [no object, with adverbial of direction] (Of a ship or train) travel somewhere under steam power: the 11:54 steamed into the station
More example sentences
  • The ship held two memorial services, one at dawn in Seychelles harbour and one at sunset as the ship steamed on the journey home from distinguished service in Operations Slipper and Falconer.
  • Families and guests enjoyed the views of Sydney harbour and coastline as the ship steamed for Broken Bay, positioning at the starting line off Barrenjoey Head.
  • During almost ten years in commission, the ship has steamed nearly 110,000 miles and visited 81 ports in 14 countries.
3.1 informal Come, go, or move somewhere rapidly or in a forceful way: Jerry steamed in ten minutes late figurative the company has steamed ahead with its investment program
More example sentences
  • Moves are steaming ahead to honour an Atherton-born boffin whose vision of a high speed hovertrain was dismissed.
  • It is an approach that gains steam as the movie moves forward and gives the film's climax a powerful sense of the inevitable.
  • But having been here for a considerable length of time, it has struck me that as Shanghai steams ahead in the new millennium, it still remains inextricably linked with its near-forgotten past.
3.2 [no object] (steam in) British informal Start or join a fight.
3.3 [no object] (often as noun steaming) British informal (Of a gang of thieves) move rapidly through a public place, stealing things or robbing people on the way.



pick up (or get up) steam

1Generate enough pressure to drive a steam engine.
2(Of a project in its early stages) gradually gain more impetus and driving force: his campaign steadily picked up steam
More example sentences
  • Television star Thompson entered the race later than the other candidates and has yet to pick up the steam on the campaign.
  • The experience of the past year has forced the company to reorient its strategy, including a few steps in reverse, in order to pick up steam.

have steam coming out of one's ears

informal Be extremely angry or irritated.
Example sentences
  • New York's electoral votes are all going to go to Kerry whether New Yorkers have steam coming out of their ears or are lounging around watching sports and laughing and drinking.
  • On badly depressing days I could walk around with a black cloud over my head, if I was feeling stressed I could have steam coming out of my ears.
  • Like his colleagues around the table at Macleans College, he practically has steam coming out of his ears.

in steam

(Of a steam locomotive) ready for work, with steam in the boiler.
Example sentences
  • The heritage railway, which runs from Toddington to Cheltenham Racecourse, will have five Swindon-built locomotives in steam on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
  • Machine power, manifested in steam, internal combustion, and jet engines, provides strategic and tactical mobility and logistic lift to armed forces.

let (or blow) off steam

informal (Of a person) get rid of pent-up energy or strong emotion.
Example sentences
  • That was a raucous blast of rock energy, Adams letting off steam.
  • I needed something to help them blow off steam and energy.
  • Playing does much more than just help kids let off steam, according to City of York Council, which has launched an initiative to get more youngsters enjoying themselves.

run out of (or lose) steam

informal Lose impetus or enthusiasm: a rebellion that had run out of steam
More example sentences
  • Sandy Neilson's production, enthusiastically performed by the resident company, strikes an appropriate, rollicking tone but gradually runs out of steam.
  • The two very sexy stars provide enough chemistry in this stylized thriller but the movie runs out of steam halfway through.
  • I'd like watch as each argument just runs out of steam, leaving just the prejudice and chauvinism for all to see.

under one's own steam

(With reference to travel) without assistance from others: we’re going to have to get there under our own steam
More example sentences
  • ‘These delegates often travel under their own steam and bring a partner so are therefore likely to stay on for an extra weekend,’ a spokesman for VisitScotland said.
  • But I've set off down this road, and I should at least travel some distance under my own steam before deciding to turn back and simply be a passenger on someone else's mystery train.
  • He prefers to travel under his own steam, free of deadlines and the constriction of a commission.

under steam

(Of a machine) being operated by steam.
Example sentences
  • The King, which last operated under steam about 1946, came close to destruction several times until it was converted to a floating hotel here.
  • That's experienced railroading, You got the hostler to bring around something that was under steam and couple her up behind the diesel.
  • It was scrapped July 1953, and was probably the last T - 1 under steam.


Old English stēam 'vapor', stēman 'emit a scent, be exhaled', of Germanic origin; related to Dutch stoom 'steam'.

  • In Old English steam was any kind of hot vapour or gas, and did not settle into the modern meaning until the 15th century. The phrase let off steam, meaning ‘to get rid of pent-up energy or strong emotion’, originated in the context of steam engines in the early 19th century. The literal meaning is ‘to release excess steam from a steam engine through a valve’, vital in preventing the engine from blowing up. The meaning which is familiar today arose in the 1830s in the alternative version blow off steam. There is a related image in have steam coming out of your ears, meaning ‘to be very angry’. Other phrases that recall the days of steam engines include get up (or pick up) steam, run out of steam, and under your own steam.

Words that rhyme with steam

abeam, agleam, beam, blaspheme, bream, deem, deme, downstream, dream, esteem, extreme, gleam, hakim, kilim, meme, midstream, Nîmes, régime, scheme, scream, seam, seem, stream, supreme, team, teem, theme, upstream

For editors and proofreaders

Syllabification: steam

Share this entry

What do you find interesting about this word or phrase?

Comments that don't adhere to our Community Guidelines may be moderated or removed.