LAST UPDATED: September 22, 2020 by Ryan M
The most common explanation for the origin of the phrase is based on folk etymology. It goes something like this:
In the early 1900’s it was customary for a hostess to serve hot meat to welcomed customers and cold meat to those who had overstayed their welcome. Since the cold meat given to unwanted customers was usually mutton, the hostess would say, “give him the cold shoulder” …… of mutton.
This is folk etymology though, and there is no evidence to substantiate this as being true, although it seems plausible.
“The Countess’s dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shouther”.
‘Cauld’ is Scottish for ‘cold,’ and ‘shouther’ means ‘shoulder.’ Scott uses the word in different contexts, which makes the meaning clear. For example, “They were stout hearts the race of Glenallan, … they stood shouther to shouther”.
This only proves the meaning of the word, shoulder, and doesn’t explain the phrase, though.
Scott went on to write this: “I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally.”
Scott coined many phrases that we use today such as ‘lock, stock, and barrel’. While no one is 100% sure, the fact that the two earliest known citations of ‘cold shoulder’ come from his writings would suggest he coined the phrase as well.
The phrase began appearing frequently in the 1820s. Charles Dickens used it in 1840 in The Old Curiosity Shop. In 1839, the phrase also appeared in a letter to the editor in the ‘Bangor (Maine) Daily Whig’ newspaper:
‘… eminent individuals and his cabinet advisers turned “the cold shoulder” to their ambassador, for his independent act upon this occasion.’