The cold shoulder
Posted: 02 June 2018 11:02 PM   [ Ignore ]
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If give the cold shoulder has ever been discussed on this board, I haven’t been able to find it: nor is it in the Big List. Perhaps it should be, given that there is a widespread folk etymology for it, plus - I only now learn - a slightly dubious Biblical one.

I was whinging to a friend about the number of people and websites that trot out the story about giving unwanted guests cold shoulder of mutton at dinner to give them a hint that they weren’t wanted (not merely is there no evidence that anyone ever did this, but it runs utterly contrary to the reality of 18th- and 19th-century social dining) and she alerted me that the Wikipedia entry for the phrase claims that it is “in fact a mistranslation of an expression from the Vulgate Bible” - viz. Nehemiah 9.29.

I’m not too convinced by that one either, to be honest. The KJV translation of that verse is:

And testifiedst against them, that thou mightest bring them again unto thy law: yet they dealt proudly, and hearkened not unto thy commandments, but sinned against thy judgments, (which if a man do, he shall live in them;) and withdrew the shoulder, and hardened their neck, and would not hear.

And the Geneva Bible, which had a longer currency in Scotland than in England and which might be expected to affect Scottish turns of phrase, isn’t much different:

And protestedst among them, that thou mightest bring them again unto thy Law: but they behaved themselves proudly, and hearkened not unto thy commandments, but sinned against thy judgments (which a man should do and live in them) and pulled away the shoulder, and were stiff-necked, and would not hear.

OK, both of them do describe people manifesting rejection by pulling their shoulders away: but I feel that without any actual supporting evidence it’s a bit of a jump to claim this as the “origin” of give the cold shoulder, given the absence of the adjective and the universality of the action of snubbing someone by turning one’s shoulder to them. In fact, when I was about 7 I read an introduction to ballet that explained the term épaulement (a shoulder movement performed by turning the body from the waist upward and bringing one shoulder forward and the other back) by saying “Think of giving the cold shoulder to someone - that’s how it looks”, which conveyed the meaning perfectly.

Any thoughts?

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Posted: 03 June 2018 04:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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According to The Word Detective

‘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.’

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Posted: 03 June 2018 06:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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It doesn’t seem to me that any elaborate backstory is necessary, since the phrase is self-explanatory given the standard metaphorical meaning of ‘cold.’

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Posted: 03 June 2018 07:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I concur with Languagehat. No elaborate explanation is needed.

But if you’re going to consider a mistranslation of the Vulgate, then you need to look at the Vulgate, not at the KJV or other translations (which are from the Hebrew, not the Latin). The Vulgate reads:

et dederunt umerum recedentem

Douay-Rheims (the standard English translation of the Vulgate) renders this as:

and they withdrew the shoulder

But a literal translation is:

and they gave a receding shoulder

Nothing about being cold, so I guess that’s the alleged mistranslation.

I suppose that an influence from the Vulgate (or more likely the Douay-Rheims) is possible, it’s a bit of a stretch to credit an obscure Bible verse when a simple, easily understood metaphor is available.

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Posted: 05 June 2018 10:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Nothing about being cold, so I guess that’s the alleged mistranslation.

You’d think so, but no: the Wiki entry clearly says that:

This expression is a mistranslation of the Latin phrase dederunt umerum recedentem from the Book of Nehemiah 9.29 from the Vulgate Bible, which actually means “stubbornly they turned their backs on you”, which comes from the Septuagint Bible’s Greek equivalent ἔδωκαν νῶτον ἀπειθοῦντα. Latin umerus (often misspelled humerus) means both “shoulder” and “back”

But this is nonsense. Every Latin dictionary I can find online says that the main meaning of umerus is “the humerus bone” / “the upper arm” / the shoulder”. The entry cites Lewis & Short as authority for the sense “back” - but Lewis & Short’s entry for umerus states clearly that this sense refers only to the “back” of inanimate things such as plants, mountain ridges and countries. If St Jerome had really meant to say “they turned their backs” he would surely have used tergum rather than umerus. Whether Jerome himself mistranslated the Septuagint / the Hebrew here, whether mistakenly or on purpose (he wasn’t above improving on the word of God) I’m not competent to say.

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