Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we are giving you the cold shoulder over cold turkey and cold feet.
Q: Hi AWC, where does the phrase “to give someone the cold shoulder” come from?
A: Why do you ask?
Q: I think someone has been giving me the cold shoulder at my local gym. Each time I try to talk to them at the shoulder press machine, they ignore me. And they have an icepack on their shoulder too.
A: Okay, well none of that has anything to do with the origin – apart from the bit about them ignoring you.
Q: Oh okay. So is it a kind of turning away gesture, that presents your shoulder? In which case, why is it cold?
A: Your problem is that you’re talking about the wrong kind of shoulder.
Q: Oh okay – so maybe it refers to the shoulder season when booking accommodation. Giving someone the cold shoulder maybe means the hotel gives you a room in April with no heating? No?
A: Shall we just explain it instead?
Q: Good idea.
A: It’s actually a dinner reference – as in a shoulder of mutton traditionally. If a guest outstayed their welcome, or wasn’t welcome in the first place, for dinner they’d be given a ‘cold shoulder’ of mutton – the beans on toast of the 19th century.
Q: I quite like beans on toast…
A: Anyway, it dates back to the early 1800s, meaning the same as it does today – to give an icy reception.
Q: My cousin Shazza just got married in Antarctica. They had an icy reception.
A: Did they really get married there?
Q: Yes. Although I don’t think they’ll last. Their relationship has been going south for months.
A: Oh dear.
Q: So cold mutton huh. Is that any relation to “cold turkey”?
A: No. To go “cold turkey” originated in the early 1900s. It began solely relating to drugs like heroin, but over time has included everything and anything that you want to stop immediately – from chocolate to social media.
Q: Okay sure, but why a cold turkey?
A: There are two theories. It was either the feeling you got when trying to give up the drugs – like a cold turkey. OR it relates to “talking turkey” which is to speak in a frank and blunt way. So to go “cold turkey” would be to quit in a blunt way.
Q: Finally, what about “cold feet”?
A: Well this one is a little shrouded in mystery. Some say it’s from the 19th century battlefields and a soldier with cold feet being fearful or doubtful about proceeding. Others point to the Italian original saying which meant something completely different – to be out of money – and well, the jury’s out on that one.
Q: Well finally, can you use all three in a sentence?
A: Jane was getting cold feet about marrying Tom, ever since he gave her mum the cold shoulder at the rehearsal dinner – but could she give him up cold turkey like that?
Q: I really hope Jane makes the right decision.
A: We all do.
Q: Perhaps they should consider an Antarctic wedding…
If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!