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cut no ice
Posted: 16 July 2009 10:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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This 1852 book shows an engraving of cutting ice on the Schuylkill.  I expect the practice, and the term in its literal sense, are even older.

Edit: ExpressionEngine’s determination to mutilate URLs with % signs defeated, thanks to tinyurl.com

[ Edited: 16 July 2009 10:41 AM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 16 July 2009 10:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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Well spotted, Dr T. When I searched on “cutting ice” in google books, I found this referring to Massachusetts in 1829:

The machinery for cutting ice described in this patent

What would the ice have been used for? Food preservation?

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Posted: 17 July 2009 03:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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ElizaD - 16 July 2009 10:52 PM

What would the ice have been used for? Food preservation?

I should think so.  I would be willing to bet the process goes back farther than recorded history in areas where ice is available.

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Posted: 17 July 2009 06:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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What would the ice have been used for? Food preservation?

Ice harvesting was big business in New England in the late 19th century. Ice was cut from rivers and lakes and shipped as far as Europe and even China. One web site I looked at said that the business was shipping 10 million tons of ice per year by 1900. It quickly declined in the 20th century due to artificial ice making and electrification/refrigeration.

And I agree with Faldage. I’m sure you’ll find literal references to cutting ice as far back as you’d care to look. But the specific idiom, “cut no ice,” only appears to date to the 1890s, which would coincide with the height of the New England ice trade.

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Posted: 27 December 2011 09:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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Having come upon this forum when investigating Patrick O’Brian’s conversation between Dr Maturin and Mr Evans, and thought I may perhaps be able to contribute in some small way.

Firstly the phrase ‘To cut (or not) the mustard’ is a direct reference to the uncommonly sharp knives needed for this task (apparently due to the nature of the fibres in a mustard plant). It strikes me that the phrase ‘To cut(or not) the ice may well also refer to the suitability of tools - ice is cut using saws, rather than knives, but the extension seems to hold, as saw technology and metallurgy from the presumed period of origin of the phrase would indicate that only a saw of above average quality steel would last, due to the induced brittleness caused by the low temperature, the naturally hard nature of ice, and the need for the tool to melt the ice at the teeth as much as cut it away. I briefly tried my hand at ice sculpture many years ago, with a chainsaw, and can attest to ice blunting the teeth at least as readily as hardwoods.

Secondly, in Patrick O’Brian’s example, the phrase is ‘Cuts no ice with me’. This could be a reference to the difficulty of using a double-ended saw on blocks of ice. From what I can determine, the method used before machinery was to cut large blocks of ice from the water surface using a single-ended saw, which blocks would then be hauled up on land to be chopped up smaller and packed in straw for shipping. The most efficient pre-machinery way of cutting a block of ice after it was brought to shore would have been a double-ended saw, operated by two men. Anyone having tried to use one of these (I have only tried this on wood) will know that without experience both of the tool and of each other, it is not easy for a pair to work efficiently, and the saw often suffers as a result. Perhaps that effect was exacerbated in ice, with a more brittle saw blade, and a greater need to keep the saw moving fast (as ice will reform around the teeth if the saw stops), making the quality of ones partner, and familiarity with working together, even more important (considering the high cost at the time of precision items such as saws). Perhaps the grits ‘cut no ice with‘ Mr Adams because they were unable to metaphorically harmonise, or act as a team, possibly as a reference to the harmony (or lack thereof) of the digestive processes after eating grits.

To ‘break the ice’ or ‘cut the ice’ between two people seems idiomatic enough, with the meaning of somehow overcoming shyness in the first, and insult or bad feeling in the second, and this may indicate a reference to a metaphorical temperature of ‘relations’ between Mr Adams and his ‘hominy grits’.

The trade of ice cutting and shipping was seasonal and very dependent on the vagaries of weather, and therefore ice cutters would have been very much working against the clock, especially in areas and periods where the ice harvest would only be available for a couple of weeks a year. Perhaps the reference is based on the need for very dedicated, efficient and hearty men to make the trade profitable, with the extension that an item which ‘cuts no ice with’ someone would not be chosen for the task due to some weakness or failing or general lack of suitability for the job.

Incidentally ice has been stored for food preservation since antiquity, with examples of Egyptian, Persian, Chinese and Roman ice houses still in existence. I found an unsubstantiated reference to them being in use in Babylon and Mesopotamia in general. Alexander was said to have built the first Greek ice house, the sale and use of ice (presumably cut) was apparently common even among the lower income classes in ancient Greece.

I also came across this definition from an online dictionary;

‘cut no ice with somebody’
if something cuts no ice with someone, it does not cause them to change their opinion or decision - I’ve heard her excuses and they cut no ice with me.

Cambridge Idioms Dictionary, 2nd ed. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2006.

Personally I can’t quite reconcile that with the actual nature of ice or ice cutting, nor with Mr Adams usage relative to his grits.

Appreciate any comments..

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Posted: 28 December 2011 07:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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You are way overthinking this.

Secondly, in Patrick O’Brian’s example, the phrase is ‘Cuts no ice with me’.

That’s because that is the normal usage.  It needs no special explanation in terms of ice-cutting technology.

Personally I can’t quite reconcile that with the actual nature of ice or ice cutting

That’s because the connection with “the actual nature of ice or ice cutting” is imported by you, and if it can’t be reconciled, that means the idiom does not depend on ice-cutting technology but has some other origin.

And once again it needs to be emphasized that the O’Brian passage is simply an elaborate joke.

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Posted: 28 December 2011 07:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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Absolutely I get that O’Brian was making a joke, he just happened to lead me to considering the phrase itself (after some fruitless searching to see if his supposed Iroqouis actually did have another amusing meaning, which would have been genius) - my post was for the most part trying to examine the ways in which the phrase could relate to actual ice cutting, as it would seem a logical place to start trying to ascertain an origin until someone can find an early example with another explanation. Unfortunately my library is somewhat limited at present, especially in older texts, and nothing of much use came out of online research. I have often found the phrase used without the ‘with’, although to be fair that is most likely by a false connection to ‘break the ice’ or the more modern ‘cut the cheese’. I still feel (although I have no proof) that there is some link to actual ice cutting, and sorry, but I don’t believe any amount of thinking to be overthinking until a solution is found or at least an adequate hypothesis proposed.

The lack of change of opinion definition seems contrary to the usage in the O’Brian case and many more.

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Posted: 28 December 2011 08:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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Joke or not, one should not expect a character in a novel to always speak factual truths. People make incorrect claims about etymology all the time in real life, characters in novels should be no different. The problem is with the reader who interprets said etymology as a factual truth. Part of the verisimilitude of O’Brian’s books is that the characters are not always right.

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