The Cold Shoulder and Other Fun Terms

The old cold shoulder


Yesterday we spoke of the new “cold shoulders” in fashion.  Now let’s discuss the term in historical terms.

I’m not sure I ever have used the phrase “cold shoulder” in speech or, before yesterday, in writing, but my previous understanding always accorded with its definition in the American Heritage Dictionary.

To “give someone the cold shoulder” is to ignore someone deliberately:
“At the party, Carl tried to talk to Suzanne, but she gave him the cold shoulder.”

This term has a long history.  Before the 19th century, English scholars speculated that its origin suggested that hosts would greet favored guests with a hot meal but that less welcome visitors would be served “the cold shoulder,” presumably of mutton.  Admittedly, such a cold shoulder does sound unappetizing.

But etymologists — experts in word derivations — have for many generations rejected this as unsubstantiated folklore.

Extensive research has concluded that Sir Walter Scott was the first writer to use the term, and in fact used it twice, in two of his lesser novels.

Here is the first reference, from “The Antiquary,” published in 1816:

“The Countess’s dislike didna gang farther at first than
just showing o’ the cauld shouther”.
Anyone who has read any Shakespeare can deduce the meaning here.  (And, yes, it has been established that, for Scott, “shouther” meant shoulder.)
Eight years later, in “St. Ronan’s Well,” Scott affirmed the meaning of the term with this:
“I must tip him the cold shoulder,
or he will be pestering me eternally.”
Ergo, the word experts say, Scott invented the phrase.  Personally, I wonder; obviously it is possible to track down printed expressions in surviving texts, but previous common usage in speech cannot be deduced because there are no records to be examine.
Anyway, the phrase went viral, at least in nineteenth century terms, appearing several times in Charles Dickens’ writings and jumping the pond to appear in a letter to the editor in The Bangor (Maine) Daily Whig and Courier in 1839:
‘… eminent individuals and his cabinet advisers turned “the cold shoulder” 
to their ambassador, for his independent act upon this occasion.’   

So there.

But the whole meaning of the term flipped nearly 200 years later, probably when one or several fashion editors applied it more literally to describe garments with bared shoulders, as in, if you wear a such a shirt outdoors in November, your shoulders will be cold.

From there it was off to the races (an idiomatic expression meaning, sometimes, a trend gaining in popularity) and now everybody, or at least every fashion follower knows the meaning.  This description has replaced the 200-year-old one, at least for the moment.

Sic transit gloria grammatica.

(Note:  I am beholden to the website for its discussion of the evolution of the phrase “cold shoulder.”)

Words of the Moment


English is an unusually elastic language, particularly American vernacular.  In the last century we have learned that “Twenty-three skidoo” means to leave an event hastily, that “Jumping the shark” means going too far with an idea or theme and that IMHO, AFAIK and other acronyms are shorteners for generally understood text messages.  New words seem to be coined on a daily basis, and perhaps more often than that.
Just yesterday I learned this new one: “stan,” which seems to be a mashup, as in, STalker+fAN=STAN.  A stan is someone obsessed with a particular celebrity, and by celebrity I use the term loosely to indicate someone who is famous but not necessarily for any particular reason.
I also learned that the word can function as a verb.  In this usage, a stan may decide to “unstan” a previously favored celebrity.

This happened when a major Kendall Jenner stan decided to unstan the model/whatever on Twitter at the first of this month.  You can follow the very, very long thread of support for the unstanning if you wish.  I haven’t spent much time thinking about Kendall Jenner myself, but this event has rocketed around the world, gathering news coverage from here to South Africa and many places in between.

It appears that all the cool kids are giving poor Kendall Jenner the cold shoulders, and I don’t mean sweaters with holes in them.

3 thoughts on “The Cold Shoulder and Other Fun Terms

  1. I love your explanations here for the idioms. I hate to say this out loud (or in print), but I find the open shoulder garments to be ridiculous. If I could see a reason for them, such as hellish hot conditions, or avoiding have a kid spit up on your new sweater….I might understand the attraction. Apologies to my friends and family that wear these, but honestly, I think they look silly.


  2. Great blog! I have nominated you for an award. See my post I’m floating! for more details on the award. (No obligation) Congrats! And keep up the good work. Dominique


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