On a BBC cookery program I recently heard a story of how the expression "to give someone the cold shoulder" came about. They implied that when guests had outstayed their welcome, they would be served cold shoulder of mutton. This cut of meat was evidently considered of such poor quality that the guests would immediately understand that they were, in reality, being asked to leave. We have the exact same expression in Norwegian, but the explanation doesn't ring true to me. I like shoulder of mutton. I can't imagine how it could be considered to be so bad that it would chase your guests away. In rural Norway in the old days they would be lucky to get any meat at all. -- Karin Hoff, Norway.
Oh yes, mutton. That's the gray, chewy stuff so popular in Great Britain, right? Or maybe I have it confused with Harris Tweed, presuming there is a difference. In any case, wave any sort of mutton at me and I'm history, so that story has some built-in appeal to me.
Unfortunately, the explanation of "cold shoulder" you've heard is almost certainly one of those colorful word-origin tales that ought to be, but is not, true. As far as we know, "cold shoulder" meaning "indifference or disdain" first appeared in the 1816 novel "The Antiquary," by Sir Walter Scott. The actual wording used by Scott gives a clue as to the derivation of the phrase: "The Countess's dislike didna gang (didn't go) farther at first than just showing o' the cauld shouther." It seems clear that the shoulder in question was not a cut of cold mutton, but the Countess's own -- she had turned her back and "shown her shoulder" in "cold" dismissal. In a later novel, Scott wrote "I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally," which again clearly refers to rude body language as the cure for a pest.
The important point about these first instances of "showing" or "tipping the cold shoulder" is that there is no earlier record of any truly meat-based use upon which "cold shoulder" meaning "disdain" could have been based. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that cold mutton as a dish has "suggested many puns and allusive uses," but no reputable authority has maintained that the phrase is actually rooted in a culinary tactic to dislodge overripe house guests.
Forever Ain't so long anymore
Edited by dribdrab, 12 December 2007 - 09:19 AM.