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What does "in Cold Blood" Mean?

By Angie Bates
Updated May 23, 2024
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The phrase "in cold blood" is an idiom which means to act in an unemotional manner, without feeling or passion. Today, it is most frequently used when referring to murders which were not emotionally motivated. The origin of the phrase dates back to the early 1600s and is based on a medieval medical belief.

Originally, this phrase was once thought to be much more literal than it is considered now. Early physicians once thought that a person's emotions and internal fluids were closely connected. Blood, for example, was thought to literally heat up when a person became angry or impassioned.

Conversely, when a person was calm, with little or no emotion, their blood was thought to be cool. So although saying someone did something "in cold blood" in the 17th century meant they were calculated and free of emotion. It was also thought that the person's blood was literally cooler than an individual who was emotional. The terms "cold blooded" and "hot blooded" are also derived from this idea.

Some linguists also think the phrase might have been originally translated directly from the French word sang-froid. Sang-froid means "calmly" or "with composure," but translates literally to "blood-cold." The French term, however, has a generally positive connotation whereas "in cold blood" is more often used negatively.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the phrase "in cold blood," was in 1608 by an English soldier, Sir Francis Vere in his Commentaries of the Divers Pieces of Service. Vere stated that he was writing "a resolution framed in cold blood." The phrase was used in various documents over the next hundred years, appearing in literature in 1711 when Joseph Addison used the phrase in his periodical, The Spectator, to describe a murder.

Perhaps the most famous use of the term in recent history is Truman Capote's 1965 book, titled In Cold Blood. Capote and the book gained fame and infamy when Capote, a journalist, swore the book's account of events was pure fact merely told with a fictional style. Controversy broke out when several people featured in the book accused Capote of making up major scenes and misrepresenting characters. Infamous or not, the book revived a style of journalism used by Mark Twain almost a century before. Now dubbed New Journalism, Capote's fiction-writing techniques are considered essential in most journalism philosophies.

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Discussion Comments

By StarJo — On Jan 05, 2012

People who commit murder in cold blood are much scarier to me than those who do it out of rage. These cold-blooded killers are in a relaxed state, and sometimes they do it just for fun or because they can.

I heard about one killer who liked to shoot random people just to see if he could hit his target. That was the only joy he got out of it. It would be like me shooting a basketball into a goal and making it.

Cold-blooded killers have no regard for human life. Their conscience is not affected at all by their crimes, so there is no reason for them to stop.

By ddljohn — On Jan 05, 2012

@burcinc-- If that's true, then maybe the book should have been called "In Hot Blood" instead of "In Cold Blood."

Because a murder committed in cold blood definitely means that it was done deliberately, with calculation and premeditation. So it must be planned.

If it was not planned but rather done in the spur of the moment or on impulse, it wouldn't be cold-blooded, it would be hot-blooded.

Are you sure that the "In Cold Blood" characters didn't plan to murder the family? Since the book is based on a real life murder, maybe some things were changed for the book.

By burcinc — On Jan 04, 2012

@burcidi-- I think what you said is right except for the plan part. I read Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" and what you described is basically the kind of murder that took place in the book (and in reality).

The murderers had actually entered the Clutter family home for robbery. But they weren't able to find money and ended up killing the family. They had no motive for it, they just wanted to take the money and go. Also, when one of the murderers confessed the crime he said that Mr. Clutter was a really nice person.

So it's really confusing why they murdered these innocent people because they didn't plan to. They just did it. I think the Clutter family murder and Capote's book is a good example of what murder 'in cold blood' means.

By burcidi — On Jan 03, 2012

It's interesting that this term used to be used very literally before.

I don't know much about the roots of "in cold blood," but from what I understand, it has a negative effect on a case if the murder was committed 'in cold blood' rather than as an outcome of intense emotion.

Isn't this term usually used when talking about serial killers? Serial killers tend to have no emotions attached when they kill their victims and often don't even know much about them. If someone murders because of fear or some other emotion, that person is considered less dangerous than someone who murders in cold blood, right?

Because 'in cold blood' also implies that this person is acting after a thought process or plan. The act is not spontaneous.

What do you think?

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