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

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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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