Q&A: Cold shoulder vs cold turkey vs cold feet

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!

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