Clavicle of Doom.
Dear Word Detective: After reading your article regarding the phrase “sleep tight,” I wondered if perhaps I have been deceived by tour guides in Stratford-Upon-Avon in the UK. The aforementioned guides informed us that the phrase to give someone the “cold shoulder” originated from Shakespearean times, when an unwanted houseguest was served the shoulder of whichever animal was being eaten, which was the coldest, toughest part. This was supposedly a way of letting someone know that they had outstayed their welcome. Is this correct or is it just another unscrupulous tour operator’s way of fooling those of us who are interested in such things as etymology? — Rhaeniel, Leicester, England.
Well, in fairness to the guides at places such as Stratford-Upon-Avon, I’m sure they’re not consciously deceiving their visitors. It’s just that tourists expect neat stories about the places they’re visiting, tour guides need to say something, and no one likes to look a gift horse in the mouth. If a cute story tying a popular phrase to your particular tourist attraction sounds remotely plausible, you can hardly be blamed for repeating it. Come to think of it, you could argue that those folks are keeping me in business too.
As the above implies, the story you’ve heard about “give the cold shoulder to” (meaning “to show indifference or disdain to”) is nonsense, and the phrase has nothing to do with cold and inferior cuts of meat being used to rid the house of tiresome guests. It first appeared in print in 1816 (quite a bit after Shakespeare’s day, by the way) in Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary. Scott uses the phrase twice: “The Countess’s dislike didna gang (didn’t go) farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shouther” and, later on, “I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally.” Both instances clearly refer to snubbing someone by turning one’s back, showing them your shoulder as you turn away in a display of emotional “coldness.”
Within a few years of Scott’s publication of The Antiquary, “cold shoulder” was turning up in novels by Thackeray and Dickens, and soon became a popular English idiom. The fact that “shoulder of mutton” was a real dish led to numerous literary puns tying the meat to the gesture (“The cold shoulder is not a palatable dish,” London Illustrated News, 1884). As a writer’s quip, that’s mildly funny. As information dispensed to trusting tourists, it’s just plain annoying.