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What Does It Mean to Give Someone the "Cold Shoulder"?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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When English speakers refer to giving someone the cold shoulder, this means that the person is generally being unfriendly to someone else. This can also mean that someone is not cooperating or actively working against that person. This generally negative idiom uses the word cold to indicate negative emotion. The word cold can be used on its own in English to describe a person’s negative demeanor toward someone else, but this expression generally implies a more sudden turn of events.

Another phrase that is similar to giving the cold shoulder is the phrase “silent treatment.” When someone is not speaking to someone else because of negative emotional factors, they are said to be giving that person the silent treatment. This phrase is more exact than the other, since giving someone a cold shoulder does not automatically imply silence.

The origin of the phrase is controversial. Some believe that the common meaning is actually related to the physical shoulder of a person, meaning that someone literally turns his shoulder toward the other person rather than facing them directly. Others point to customs in what is now the United Kingdom that would indicate the phrase is attached to conditions around food.

In food-related origins of the phrase, the term shoulder refers to a shoulder of mutton or other meat. It is said that guests who were desired were offered hot meals in many households, where less desired guests were given a part of a cold shoulder of meat. This probably contributed to the use of the “cold shoulder” as something used to display negative relationships between people.

Many cite the origin of this idiomatic phrase as occurring in 1800s, in early part of the century. Writers like Charles Dickens used the phrase somewhat later. In general, it has made its way into the English lexicon as a way to refer to negative interpersonal relationships, and often implies a very deliberate and abrupt action, rather than simply describing two people who have never gotten along.

Along with the phrase “give someone the cold shoulder,” which is a colloquial and allegorical idiom, some shorter and more succinct phrases can apply. Many English-speaking societies rely extensively on phrasal verbs, idioms which consist of a verb and a preposition. One that applies here is the phrasal verb, “shut out.” To “shut out” someone or “shut someone out” is much the same as giving them the cold shoulder. Other more technical phrasing such as “treat someone with indifference” or “decline to offer their regards” can also apply to more accurately describe specific interactions that people describe quite loosely as, “giving someone the cold shoulder.”

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