Why You’ll Never Eat a ‘Cold Shoulder’

When we want to give someone a icy reception or demonstrate a certain coldness towards them, we often find ourselves giving them the ‘cold shoulder’, but why? Where exactly does this strange saying come from?

Folk Etymology

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One explanation that’s commonly bandied about is that it refers to giving unwanted guests a cold shoulder of meat over something hot and delicious – a passive-aggressive way of showing your dislike. It’s a gentle insult, offering up something inferior to those you consider to be inferior themselves. Whilst this is a nice idea, it’s almost certainly not where the phrase comes from, especially considering that receiving a plate of cold meats was not and still isn’t really all that of an insult.

To Show or To Give

In fact, in early textual references, there was no giving the cold shoulder at all. Instead, it was shown, as is demonstrated by Sir Walter Scott’s 1816 The Antiquary, the first printed reference to the phrase:

The Countess’s dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shouther.

Again, later in 1824’s St. Ronan’s Well, he said:

I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally.

Indeed, all early references to the phrase talk about an action or body language – a way to coldly turn your back on someone you dislike, and has little or nothing to do with cold mutton on the dinner table.

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