“Give Someone the Cold Shoulder” – Phrase Origin

It might surprise you to learn that many of the common phrases you use in your everyday life originally meant something completely different when they were first penned. Most phrases, idioms, metaphors, and individual words carry deeper meanings and richer histories than meets the eye. An example of this straying from the original meaning is the phrase “give someone the cold shoulder.”

“Give someone the cold shoulder” originated from The Antiquary by Sir Walter Scott in 1816. He used the phrase to express an intentional action one performed to dismiss or show disinterest in another person, which is how it is also used today.

Although the phrase’s origin seems pretty straightforward, there is actually a story behind its etymology and use throughout history. This article will teach you the origins and history of the phrase “give someone the cold shoulder.” You’ll also learn how to use the phrase and a few alternate synonyms to use in its place. 

“Give Someone the Cold Shoulder”: Etymology, Meaning, and How To Use It

Sir Walter Scott is the first writer recorded to have used the phrase “give someone the cold shoulder.” That said, he didn’t exactly use the phrase in the way we hear it being used today, nor did he use it in a way that followed the standard definition at the time.

In his 1816 work titled The Antiquary, Scott wrote, “the countess’ dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shoulther.” 

This passage isn’t exactly easy to decipher, but you may reason that Scott’s use of the word “cauld” translates to “cold” and “shoulther” to “shoulder.” The original spellings of these words follow the Scottish dialect spoken at the time, but they have the same definitions as the modern pronunciations. 

In the excerpt from The Antiquary above, Sir Walter Scott references a countess displaying her disinterest in another character from the story. He states that, at first, this dismissal was subtle or even vague. 

He then wrote that this character’s disdain quickly escalated into “downright violence.” 

The Etymology of “Give Someone the Cold Shoulder”

Beyond the first recorded use of the phrase, this phrase is also connected to the idea that one is prone to serving a cold shoulder of mutton to an unwelcome guest, either in their home or at a feast. 

Some etymology experts assume this meaning is actually the original one and that Sir Walter Scott recoined the phrase when he wrote The Antiquary. It’s a great example of folk etymology.

What Is Folk Etymology?

Folk etymology is a fancy way of saying that a word or phrase has been misunderstood or mispronounced and that the new, less historically-accurate definition has become more popular. 

That is why folk etymology is also called popular etymology

A great example of folk etymology is the word “bonfire.” To you, a bonfire probably holds nothing but positive connotations and even memories. You may think of pleasant conversations around a pile of burning logs whenever the word is mentioned. 

S’mores, bugs, and campfire songs also come to mind. 

However, the original spelling of “bonfire” was actually “bone-fire.” People used it to describe the piles of animal bones lit to purify the land, ward off evil, and celebrate feasts. 

The lexicographer Samuel Johnson misinterpreted “bone-fire” to stem from the French word bon, meaning “good.” This definition was penned and widely accepted, hence its use and meaning today. 

Sir Walter Scott did something similar when he wrote “cauld shoulther.” He took the original use, “a cold shoulder of mutton,” and used it differently. 

Another example of folk etymology is the noun “female.” Initially, the word did not include “male” at the end. In Middle English, it was pronounced: “femelle.” Later, the word was changed to the modern spelling you know today simply due to its relation to the word “male,” referring to a man. 

While it makes sense from a stance that the words “female” and “male” work as opposites to each other, the spelling and meaning have changed over time.

The Meaning of the Phrase “Give Someone the Cold Shoulder”

If you analyze its uses throughout history, you can surmise that it refers to a subtle but deliberate action that expresses your disdain for another person, which is directly connected to the act of giving a guest the cold shoulder of mutton. 

This was a cut of meat traditionally meant for the poor. Offering it to a guest is a way of showing them they are unwelcome in your home, which is the phrase’s origin. 

That said, “give someone the cold shoulder” doesn’t technically refer to giving them a deliberately bad, tasteless cut of meat as a sly insult to an unwanted houseguest. Seeing someone you didn’t like in high school at the grocery store and purposely ignoring them would be an example of giving someone the cold shoulder. 

It references a direct display of disinterest evidenced by performing a deliberate action that shows your unwillingness to acknowledge the other person.

How To Use It

To use the phrase “give someone the cold shoulder,” you need to know who you’re referencing. Who is on the receiving end of that cold shoulder?

For example, if your coworker Destiny walked into the office without greeting a manager she frequently disagrees with, you might say something like, “Destiny certainly gave our manager the cold shoulder this morning.

Or, if you’re in the store and see someone who loves to incessantly talk, and you don’t have time, you’re more than likely to avoid that person. That’s giving them the cold shoulder as well. 

Here are a few more examples of how to use “give someone the cold shoulder” in a sentence or paragraph:

  • “Braxton and Brittany broke up a month ago and still go to the same gym, so she gives him the cold shoulder whenever she sees him there.”
  • “My mom was angry that I told her my burger was slightly undercooked. Now she gives me the cold shoulder anytime I visit her.”
  • “I bought the cheaper brand of food for my cat last week. Not only does she refuse to eat it, but she won’t cuddle with me on the couch like she used to. A feline is giving me the cold shoulder!”

You may or may not want to use such slang-like language in your writing. However, if you’re trying to avoid idioms or modern sayings, you don’t have to resort to such flowery language as found in 17th-century writing like The Antiquary to sound educated.

Synonyms for the Phrase “Give Someone the Cold Shoulder”

There are several other ways to reference someone giving someone else the cold shoulder. Here are some synonyms you can use in conversation to allude to the same meaning. To reference a direct display of disdain or disrespect in the form of a noun, try using words such as:

  • Brush-off
  • Rejection
  • Slight
  • Aloofness
  • Dismissal
  • Iciness
  • Ostracism
  • Exclusion
  • Inattention
  • Affront
  • Discourtesy

If you want to portray the act of indifference itself, you can use these words:

  • Disregard
  • Nonchalance
  • Apathy
  • Inattention
  • Disfavor
  • Lassitude

Finally, some synonyms for the phrase “give someone the cold shoulder” in verb form include the following:

  • Ignore
  • Snub
  • Shun
  • Stiff-arm
  • Rebuff
  • Disregard
  • Ostracize
  • Repudiate
  • Renounce


The phrase “give someone the cold shoulder” has a longer history than you may have imagined. While people originally used it in reference to a literal cold shoulder of meat served to unwelcome guests, Sir Walter Scott’s use of the phrase (1816) changed its meaning. 

A dictionary search reveals different definitions for the phrase, but the meaning is still the same. 

According to Cambridge English Dictionary, it means “to intentionally ignore someone or treat someone in an unfriendly way.” So the next time you notice someone displaying icy indifference to another person, you’ll know they’re giving them the cold shoulder.