Friday, July 07, 2006

Straight From the Shoulder

Q. To give someone the cold shoulder – where does that come from?

A. There are differences of opinion on this one. The spurious folk etymology version says that in the Middle Ages, unwelcome guests were given a cold shoulder of meat rather than a hot meal; it was a sign that they were not wanted and should leave.

But for one thing, a meal with meat (even cold meat) was a luxury that most people seldom enjoyed; it certainly wasn't punishment. That story is bogus, though widespread, especially on the internet.

For another, it doesn't show up in print until 1816, when it appears in Sir Walter Scott's novel, The Antiquary. Not only does this late date eliminate a medieval source, but Scott uses it in the sense of a dismissive shrug of the shoulder, not a cold meal.

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

Scott used it again in his 1824 St Ronan’s Well:

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

After Scott used the phrase a couple of times, it caught on like wildfire and began to appear everywhere. He was, after all, the most popular novelist of his time. So the most probable explanation is that he took a Scottish metaphor and introduced it to the English-speaking world.

No shoulder to cry on here.

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