When you give someone the cold shoulder – something I never do, of course – you ignore or dismiss that person in an unfriendly manner, as if they weren’t really there. You might even turn your back on them. Heat is used figuratively to describe the degree of affection that you show someone. If you warm to someone it means that you like them or are at least growing to like them. Cold, though, represents disdain and hatred, ill feelings. So it is pretty easy to figure out why cold shoulder should have the figurative meaning it has today.
As to its origin it first appeared in print in Sir Walter Scott’s The Antiquary, published in 1816, “The Countess’s dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shouther”, cauld being Scottish dialect for cold and shouther for shoulder. Scott found it necessary to define the phrase’s meaning in the Glossary attached to the Antiquary which suggests that it was probably an idiom used by the Scots and one that would be relatively unfamiliar to his more refined Sassenach readership, although its absence is notable from the Concise Scots Dictionary – perhaps it was a little too concise!
Scott was clearly enamoured with the phrase but it pops up again in St Ronan’s Well, published in 1824, in an Anglicised form. “I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally”. The form and the sense conform to its modern-day usage.
Although somewhat out of fashion these days, Sir Walter Scott was in his day an extremely popular and influential writer. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, to see the phrase springing up in literature shortly afterwards. Dickens wrote in the Old Curiosity Shop, published in 1840, “he gives me the cold shoulder on this very matter as if he had nothing to do with it, instead of being the first to propose it”.
Charlotte Bronte wrote in The Professor, her first novel which failed to find a publisher until after her death in 1857, “all understood the art of speaking fair when a point was to be gained, and could with consummate skill and at a moment’s notice turn the cold shoulder the instant civility ceased to be profitable”. Her sister, Emily, used the phrase in Wuthering Heights (1847), “And does Miss Linton turn a cold shoulder on him? was the Doctor’s next question”. And to complete the family set, Anne used it in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), “I struck Walter Hargrave when I was drunk, the second night after we came, and he’s turned a cold shoulder on me ever since”. It was cold in the parsonage, after all.
The phrase also travelled across the pond – whether Scottish immigrants were the cause is not clear. In 1839 the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier included correspondence in which the writer stated, “eminent individuals and his cabinet advisers turned the cold shoulder to their ambassador, for his independent act upon this occasion”. Once in the public domain, the idiom grew in popularity like topsy.
There are some suggestions that it has an earlier genesis, that there was a custom in mediaeval times to provide an unwelcome guest with a meal of cold meat, perhaps shoulder. I would have thought they had more direct ways of letting someone know they were unwelcome and there is no direct evidence that this was either a custom or, indeed, the idea behind our phrase. I think the turning of the back, showing a shoulder and the association of cold with enmity is sufficient for our purposes.