What's in a Word | All Blogs


Cold shoulder seen, not eaten

By Debra Dobbins

Giving someone the cold shoulder means to snub him or turn away from him. In this case, Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf froze out head coach Brad Childress by firing him. Was Wilf’s decision cold-hearted? You may read the story in our print edition or e-edition and decide for yourself.

Through the centuries folks have claimed that this phrase came from the practice of giving an unwanted visitor the cold shoulder of mutton, rather than freshly cooked, hot meat given to guests enjoying a warmer welcome. According to several sources, though, this explanation may simply stem from folk tales. Scholars who like to delve into the history of words cannot find much proof that such cold cuts really existed.

What is documented is the use of the phrase by Sir Walter Scott, a Scottish playwright, poet and historic novelist. According to Wikipedia, the phrase first showed up in Scott’s The Antiquary, a gothic novel written in 1816. Here’s a quote from page 69:

"Ye may mind that the Countess’s dislike did na gang farther at first than just shewing o’ the cauld shouther—at least it wasna seen fartha; but at the lang run it brak out into such downright violence that Miss Neville was even fain to seek refuge at Knockwinnock castle with Sir Arthur's leddy, wha (God sain her) was then wi' the living."

Wikipedia says that Scott again used the phrase both in a later novel and in a letter he sent to an editor. Scott’s spelling of “cold shoulder” did not survive over time, but the meaning of his phrase did.

Some people contend that “cold shoulder” is a cliché, an expression that is overused. (See yesterday’s blog entry.) I say we retain it to help us remember how to drop a hint in our modern, over-connected world. Who knows? If some of our Facebook “friends” appear on our doorsteps someday, we may have to feed them.


Sir Walter Scott
From Project Gutenberg's The Modern Scottish Minstrel, Volume I
Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia


Cliches I hate
Cute as a button (The vast majority of buttons cannot be called cute.)
Slept like a log (Logs may rest on the ground, but they don’t sleep.)
Thinking outside of the box (It’s used so much that it now reflects thinking inside the box.)


Cliches I love

Cat got your tongue (Sorry, but the phrase brings up a Jules Feiffer kind of image for me.)
Knee-high to a grasshopper (Maybe this one’s overused because folks such as I love its whimsy.)
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. (I’ll concede that the grammar is bad, but the advice is wise. I would add: Don’t buy the latest version and toss the first one into a landfill.)
 

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