"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone. "When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Give someone the cold shoulder

   The phrase to give someone the cold shoulder means to be unfriendly; treat them with disdain; or have an unwelcome attitude towards someone.

The origin may be quite simple - if you turn away from someone that dismissive movement could easily have been called the cold shoulder.  The phrase seems to date from the nineteenth century.

On the other hand there is a more romantic story.  In Victorian times and earlier the guests were given a hot meal while the servants had to make do with the cold shoulder that also servee to provide the host's tea. So if a guest arrived and was provided with the cold shoulder of mutton they were being treated with disdain.  There's no evidence to suggest this origin but it's much more fun.


  1. In Swedish we say "ge någon kalla handen" = "give someone the cold hand" ... I don't know the origin of that, but it certainly would not have anything to do with a shoulder of mutton...

  2. The second explanation sounds quite logical, actually. I wonder what the explanation in German is, since we use almost exactly the same phrase, only that we do not "give" someone the cold shoulder, but we "show" it to them.

  3. Perhaps it is simply metaphoric? That is, we offer a "shoulder to cry on" to comfort the sad and/or bereaved. That "shoulder" is actually the area between the shoulder and the breast, is it not? And the phrase is metaphorical but re-mindful of those days on our mothers' laps which we sought for succor and comfort... and warmth. Hence, a "cold shoulder" would be a rejection of that motherly, familial, love.

    1. Quite possible, Douglas. It certainly looks as though the shoulder of ham idea has 'gone for a burton'.

    2. I had to look up that phrase ("gone for a burton")... interesting. I am a student of the 30's and 40's and, especially, the war years and had never seen or heard that phrase before. Thanks for referencing it.