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A sudden loss of nerve when embarked on a venture is called cold feet. Does anyone know why that should be? An etymology is suggested at englishdaily626.

If your 'feet' are 'cold', you can't walk or move forward very well - you are frozen in one place.

Is it correct? It doesn't seem to me particularly convincing.

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I would hazard a guess that "cold feet" may be related to wading/swimming through deep water, and that the coldness of the water could prevent some from continuing. Again, this is just a guess with no actual facts or sources. –  zzzzBov Apr 4 '11 at 4:00
    
6/21/11: Starting bounty to see if anyone can take the leads from @Alenanno's answer and my answer and end up with something more definitive. –  Callithumpian Jun 22 '11 at 4:02
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I always thought it was because fear causes blood to be diverted to the muscles (i.e., away from the skin), possibly causing actually cold feet. –  Jon Purdy Jun 22 '11 at 4:18
    
@Jon - The MythBusters actually demonstrated that one; when going into a situation that makes you fearful or nervous, your body's natural "fight or flight" response will divert blood from the extremities and actually cause a drop in temperature. However, it is most likely not the origin of the phrase. –  KeithS Jun 28 '11 at 22:02
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8 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I found a use of the phrase that predates the Maggie reference by a decade in an 1884 student publication of the University of Michigan called The Chronicle. It occurs at the end of a short story about a man courting a woman who says she cannot marry him but won't tell him why. Finally she tells him it is because she has cold feet. It is italicized in the original as if some sort of punch line to a joke:

"No, Ernest; I have already told you that I do not love another; but do not break my heart. Leave me forever. It can never be as you desire."

"Do not ruin me, Evelyn, but let me know why we must part."

"Alas! Ernest, I cannot, I must not tell you."

"But my dear Evelyn—"

"Oh, Ernest, forgive me, leave me. It can never be, I have cold feet."

I also found the story of the German card player, or at least a version of it. This is from An Old Story of My Farming Days: (Ut Mine Stromtid), by Fritz Reuter, (translation date 1878):

They played in the most friendly manner, till the rector who had arranged his money in a half circle, found out that he had won ten shillings, and then seeing that fortune was beginning to go against him, determined to stop playing; he therefore rose, and complaining of his feet having grown very cold, put his winnings in his pocket.—"If you suffer from cold feet," said Brasig, "I'll tell you an excellent cure; take a pinch of snuff every morning before you have eaten anything and that'll prevent your ever having cold feet." — "Nonsense!" cried Kurz, who had been winning, "what's to make his feet cold?" —"Why," said the rector, defending himself, "can't I have cold feet as well as you? Don't you always complain of having cold feet at the club when you've been winning?" And so Baldrian succeeded in keeping his right to cold feet and to what he had won.

Interestingly, there is another reference to cold feet in another book by Fritz Reuter called Seed-time and Harvest, also 1878, as some sort of joke involving a shoemaker:

"Children, my feet are getting cold," said Bank, the shoemaker, "I am going home." "What? You may as well wait till the business comes to a head," said Thiel, the cabinet-maker. "What do you know about it?" said Bank. "It seems to me as if there was'nt a word of truth in the whole story." "What? You told me the story, yourself, this morning," said Thiel. "Yes, that is so, but morning talk is not evening talk. I have considered the matter since then." "That is to say, you have got cold feet over it," said the tailor. All laughed. "That is a stupid joke," said the shoemaker, "and the whole story is a stupid joke; the old inspector has traded with me all these years, and has always paid his accounts honestly, and is he likely, in his old age, to take to cheating and stealing?"

Unfortunately, none of these references shed much light on why the phrase came to mean what it did. At least not for me. I thought the references were important enough to include here, though, and maybe someone else (a German speaker?) can take the pieces and complete the puzzle.

Edit, 6/28/11:

After doing a little more work on trying to figure out the intended humor of The Chronicle story quoted above, I came up with something that may shed more light on the phrase.

What I found was this reference in an issue of the Otago Daily Times from 1881:

enter image description here

After a little more sleuthing, I found that this maxim was quite common among Presbyterians, at least, in the 1880s. The idea being that missionary zeal needed to be paired with a concern for meeting the social needs of those to be converted. Apparently the original phrase went something along the lines of "Man cannot be converted while suffering from cold feet or an empty stomach." I've seen the phrase attributed to a half dozen different ministers in the early 1800s—it seems no one knew for sure who first said it. The important part is that the saying was commonly known in certain circles. Given that, and given that the University of Michigan was co-founded by a Presbyterian minister and probably still heavily populated by Presbyterians in 1884, I think the joke of the The Chronicle story may be a play on this religious maxim. In other words, since Evelyn has cold feet, she cannot be "converted" to the idea of marrying Ernest.

If this is the case (and I realize it could be a big "if") then I think there may also be the possibility that our modern idea of having cold feet could have been influenced by this same phrase. That is, as a corollary to not being interested in being "saved" when one's feet are cold, one's having "cold feet" may have come to mean one's reluctance to pursue a matter—perhaps popularized with jokes like the story above.

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As you say, nothing there tells us why. And I really can't see why a metaphorical German usage should catch on in Britain without some pretty strong semantic/contextual backup. The search goes on, unless you're content with Alenanno's answer plus my modest contribution to explain its continuing currency. –  FumbleFingers Jun 23 '11 at 6:03
    
Would brides have had dowries in 1884? And so might "I have cold feet" have had the same double meaning in the Ernest/Evelyn story, that is, she is too poor to marry and also has lost her nerve? –  KitFox Jun 27 '11 at 12:19
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In reading the story, I am struck but this sentence "She had been thinking all day long how good Ernest Montrose had been to her, and how she could ever compensate him for the hard-earned money that he had spent in taking her on pleasure trips and excursions..." which makes me think that there is a double meaning in this story as well. –  KitFox Jun 27 '11 at 12:26
    
@Kit: I like the way you're thinking. For my own theory, see my latest edit. –  Callithumpian Jun 29 '11 at 3:33
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The feet are symbols for our whole being - symbols of volition, drive, intention. There is an opposite word:

hotfoot Verb: Walk or run quickly & eagerly: "we hotfooted it after him"

http://www.google.com/search?q=define+hotfoot&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a

Note eagerly above. So the opposite of eager is reluctant.. hence cold feet.

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Apparently the origin is not quite English, to be exact, Italian:

It seems that Ben Johnson provides the first recorded use of the phrase in English, in his Volpone of 1605: "Let me tell you: I am not, as your Lombard proverb saith, cold on my feet; or content to part with my commodities at a cheaper rate than I am accustomed: look not for it."

Apparently Johnson learned the "Lombard proverb" from an Italian acquaintance and then used it in Volpone, which takes place in Italy. Professor McKenzie even discovered that the Italian phrase was still in use in Lombardy in the early part of the 20th century. Its figurative meaning in Italian was "to be without money". It is thought that the term moved, in English, from the "without money" meaning to "unwillingness to continue in some endeavor because one is out of money" (such as a poker game) to simply "unwillingness to proceed".

Then, this "Lombard proverb" came to mean "lost nerve":

The transition from the "no money" sense to the modern "timid" sense of "cold feet" may be found in an 1862 German novel in which a card player withdraws from a game claiming that he has "cold feet" (i.e., no money), when in fact he has merely lost his nerve. "To get cold feet," goes the theory, then eventually came to mean backing out of any risky situation, whatever excuse was given.

The story of the German novel, can be backed up by this:

J. F. L. Raschen identifies the phrase in a popular German novel by Fritz Reuter published in 1862: According to an English translation from 1870, a winning card-player who is afraid his luck is turning decides to leave the table with a case of "cold feet."

So, @Alenanno's story can be explained thus.

Edit: This link backs up the Johnson story

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+1 Nice work on digging up the Johnson reference, but don't you think 250+ years is a long time to have no record of the saying? –  Callithumpian Jun 22 '11 at 16:05
    
@Callithumpian: I don't see how Johnson's usage has anything to do with the modern sense. It seems quite clear to me he's using the term in a far less metaphorical way, to mean he penniless, desperate, lacking even the wherewithall to be warmly-shod. It's not the 250 years that's problematical, it's the completely new meaning. –  FumbleFingers Jun 23 '11 at 5:40
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There is an older reference, though I don't believe it is actually the origin of the English phrase. In ancient Athens, the death penalty was enforced by making the victim drink hemlock, which apparently numbs the extremities gradually, giving you literally cold feet before death. This was a commonplace political reference : where an American comedian might say 'holding political views like that would give you a shock', referring to the electric chair, an Athenian comedy-writer might put 'those views would give you cold feet'.

Unfortunately, the only reference I can find immediately is from Aristophanes' 'Frogs' and is only marginally relevant; when the hero refers to the quickest way down to Hades,

"The pestle and mortar, then,--the beaten road?"--"No; that gives one cold feet."-

I'll try and improve the references: meanwhile, feel free to riff on this.

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This seems like it could be more significant than you give it credit. I'm looking forward to any references you can find. Do you have a link to the Aristophanes quote? Why do you think it may not be related? –  Callithumpian Jun 25 '11 at 0:26
    
@Callithumpian: it's in the Prologue, line 148. But I didn't put up a link for the same reason I think it's not the source: there are dozens of translations of the Greek, and the two words 'cold feet' are not a necessary part of it. –  TimLymington Jun 25 '11 at 17:52
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Eric Partridge has this in his Dict. of Unconv. Engl.:

cold feet, get or have (got): To become, to be discouraged, afraid: coll.: 1904 (OED sup.). The US cold-footer has not 'caught on' in England.

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I certainly don't buy the idea that the expression derives from the possibility of a person with cold feet having trouble moving!

In the UK at least, geography, climate, and the nature of how people often take holidays at the seaside all conspire to make a particular scenario familiar to almost all of us...

Family on a day out at the beach. Kids go in the sea for a paddle, and call for parents to join them. Dad (or Mum) goes in first, but Mum (or Dad) goes up the water's edge, dips a toe in, says "It's too cold!", and retreats to deckchair. Describing the incident later, kids (and the braver parent) would quite naturally say "Ah, [s]he got cold feet!".

Thus the figurative use in other contexts is readily comprehensible even on first hearing, and will tend to get repeated because it's a nice image.

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I found 2 "entries", the one with most credit (there is something related to what mgb posted), comes from here:

Origin: 1894
At some time between the 1893 first edition and the 1896 second edition of his novel Maggie, a Girl of the Streets, Stephen Crane added the earliest known instance of cold feet: "I knew this is the way it would be. They got cold feet."

The new slang term, referring to loss of courage or enthusiasm, appears also in George Ade's Artie, another novel of 1896: "'I see. He turned out to be a boodler [corrupt politician], eh?' 'I don't see no way o' gettin' past it. I like Jimmy. He's one o' them boys that never has cold feet and there's nothin' too good for a friend, but by gee, I guess when it comes to doin' the nice, genteel dip he belongs with the smoothest of 'em. And he learned it so quick, too. Ooh!'" [...]"

And this other one, taken from here

"Cold feet" as a synonym for "timid" seems to date from the late 19th century, but its exact origin is uncertain. Experts have long suspected that the phrase might have something to do with the military, an environment which certainly offers a plethora of things to fear. It is entirely possible that "to get cold feet" originally referred to soldiers who exempted themselves from battle by complaining that their feet were frozen.

A more intriguing possible origin, however, dates back to the 17th century, when "to have cold feet" meant "to have no money," probably referring to someone being so poor as to lack shoes. The transition from the "no money" sense to the modern "timid" sense of "cold feet" may be found in an 1862 German novel in which a card player withdraws from a game claiming that he has "cold feet" (i.e., no money), when in fact he has merely lost his nerve. "To get cold feet," goes the theory, then eventually came to mean backing out of any risky situation, whatever excuse was given.

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interesting. I first heard this applied to horses who refused jumps, and assumed it went from there to brides or bridegrooms - perhaps it was the other way around? –  Kate Gregory Jun 22 '11 at 13:33
    
It's @Callithumpian's call, but for my money, the true answer is a combination of my answer and yours. To "have cold feet", meaning "be desperately poor" was probably a cliché by the mid 1800's, that got rejuvenated as a 'second-remove' metaphor when that sense was refered to in the gambling context. I personally believe it survives today because of the 'third-generation' metaphorical usage put forward in my answer. –  FumbleFingers Jun 23 '11 at 5:50
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First use seems to be maggie a novel in 1893. I doubt it has any deeper meaning than a sort of pun on hot-headed (to be all for something) - cold feet is the opposite.

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From that same year, I find reference to the saying "Keep warm feet and a cold head", which so far as Google is concerned was apparently never said either before or after that year. Make of that what you will. –  FumbleFingers Jun 23 '11 at 5:57
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protected by RegDwigнt Jul 13 '12 at 8:40

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