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Cold shoulder

Q From Ken Blose; a related question came from Marc Foorman: I was told that if you were served cold shoulder meat in a medieval castle, it was a sign that you were not welcome there. Is this true?

A This explanation and variations on it are very common. I know of at least two supposedly reputable books of word histories that give detailed stories based on the presumption that unwelcome guests in olden times got cold food. These are surely mistaken, no more than well-meant attempts to explain a puzzling phrase — in other words, we’re back to our old friend folk etymology.

Let me give you the facts. The first recorded use of the phrase is in a novel by Sir Walter Scott, The Antiquary, in 1816: “The Countess’s dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shouther”. (If you find the Scots dialect to be hard going, you may prefer this, from another of his works, St Ronan’s Well of 1824: “I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally”.)

Within a decade or two of that date it was being seen all over the place in Britain — it appears in works by Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and John Galsworthy, among other authors. The first reference I can find in American works is in a book of 1844; later it became at least as common as in Britain and can be found, for example, in works by Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain.

The sudden popularity of the phrase from the 1820s on, and the total absence of it in literature before Sir Walter Scott used it, suggests strongly that he either invented it or popularised a saying that beforehand had been uncommon. As he takes the trouble to define it in the glossary to The Antiquary, it is very likely that it was an existing Scots expression that he happened to find useful (though it doesn’t appear in the Concise Scots Dictionary). It’s difficult nowadays, when Scott’s novels are by no means commonly read, to remember how popular and successful he was and the influence his writing had. It is entirely possible that those two uses I’ve quoted were enough to establish cold shoulder in the public mind.

It also seems highly likely that the phrase never referred to meat. It is much more probable that the cold shoulder was always a direct reference to that dismissive jerk of one side of the upper body to indicate a studied rejection or indifference. Scott’s use of “tip the cold shoulder” and “show the cold shoulder” suggest this is so.

The Oxford English Dictionary points out that there were many puns created around the phrase in the nineteenth century. One of these was cold shoulder of mutton, but the move is undoubtedly from the shorter phrase to the longer, not the other way about. But the existence of that version gave unwarranted support to people thinking it had something to do with offhand and perfunctory hospitality.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 31 Mar. 2001

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 31 March 2001.