The following was used in a radio broadcast (The Adventures of Harry Lime, 14th December 1951, episode 20 “An Old Moorish Custom”) as Harry was hit on the back of his head with a rifle butt by a giant Moorish bodyguard:

“It was a blow that knocked me colder than a witch’s kiss.”

Where did the phrase come from and when was it first used?

Are there any common variation and is it also (or usually) used for temperature comparisons rather than the violent thwack of the quote?

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    I've heard the variation “colder than a witch's tit.” I suspect that your quote may be a bowdlerized version. – Bradd Szonye Dec 16 '13 at 12:05
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    Note that "colder than a witch's tit" is almost always used to describe things that are low temperature, such as winter mornings, so this quote, like "he lies like a rug", plays on three different meanings for the word cold: physically cold (witch's tit); emotionally cold (witch's kiss); and unconscious (i.e., "out cold"). – Peter Shor Dec 16 '13 at 13:03
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    Comment by Man_From_India: @Peter, it's a nice explanation. But I want a bit more clarification. The expression - "colder than a witch's XXX" — Did you mean that "colder" here plays on three different meaning of cold? — "When it's physically cold" use "tit" in place of XXX. Am I right? — "When it's emotionally cold or emotionally numb or someone that doesn't show much emotion" use "kiss" in place of XXX. Am I right? — And what did you mean by "unconscious", that sometimes "cold" mean? Please explain this one with some examples. — Thanking you in advance. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Dec 16 '13 at 17:48
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    @Cerberus, Man_From_India: I think the further explanation deserves to be an answer, so I made it one. – Peter Shor Dec 16 '13 at 19:25
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    When more than "served in a chilled cocktail glass" spiritdrinks.com/cocktails/WitchesKiss.asp#.UrGWoyeIlL4 – Kris Dec 18 '13 at 12:38

There's a bunch of things you need to know to understand this expression.

The first is that "colder than a witch's tit" is an idiom for saying that something is really cold in temperature.

The second is that out cold means unconscious (it can be used for people who are asleep, are drunk, or have taken a blow to the head).

The third is that there's a type of play on words used in American English that this is a (bowdlerized) example of.1 Examples are:

He lies like a rug.
He'll fold faster than a lawn chair.

The point being that rugs lie, and lawn chairs fold, but in a quite different sense than the intended meaning of the expression.

So this expression means that Harry Lime was knocked unconscious by the blow.

Googling finds similar expressions:

knocked out colder than a witch's tit
knocked colder than a banker's heart
knocked colder than a cucumber
knocked out colder than February in Milwaukee
knocked out colder than a block of ice
knocked colder than absolute zero

These all use cold in a different sense of cold than "out cold", as befits this type of play on words. The writers seem to have changed witch's tit to witch's kiss to avoid using the word tit on the radio, but the play on words still works because a witch's kiss is cold in the same sense as a banker's heart, which is still a different sense than the one in knocked out cold.

1 If anybody can give me a name for this type of word play, I would greatly appreciate it. It's related to zeugma, but I don't know whether that quite covers it.

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  • As an aside, I believe that “lies like a rug” refers to the slang use of rug “bad toupee.” – Bradd Szonye Dec 16 '13 at 21:54
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    Good answer, thanks. Re: the name for this type of word play, is it paraprosdokian? – Hugo Dec 17 '13 at 7:07
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    @Hugo: great suggestion for the name. It has elements of both zeugma and paraprosdokian, – Peter Shor Dec 17 '13 at 17:56
  • I didn't learn "lies like a rug," but "You lie like a rug on the floor!" Definitely not a toupee. The rug on the floor is much larger. So is the lie: hence the exclamation point.(Location: U.S. public school on the South Side of Chicago, in the shadow of the University of Chicago, with a mixed student body representing both of the very different worlds that "South Side" and "University of Chicago" connote.) – Joan Pederson Dec 17 '13 at 22:28
  • @Bradd: rug meaning toupee was, according to the OED, first used in 1940, while "you lie like a rug" goes back to 1924 or earlier. – Peter Shor Feb 17 '16 at 20:42

Here are the earliest forms of "colder than a witch's kiss," "colder than a witch's teat," and "colder than a witch's tit" that a Google Books search turns up.

The first found instance of (approximately) "colder than a witch's kiss" is in William Lindsay Gresham, Limbo Tower (1949), page 13 [snippet]:

Frank Vitiello's voice complained, "Hey, quit it. Come on, sister, gimme them covers. This joint's as cold as a witch's kiss."

The first found instance of "colder than a witch's teat" is in Maurine Whipple, This Is the Place: Utah (1945), pages 176–177 [snippet]:

It is a land that has even its own language. That good-looking housewife over there "bore her testimony" last Sunday. Because your friend looks unusually well-fed and paunchy, you tell him he's "grown a bishop"; this because in the hungry early days bishops controlled the tithing, which was always paid in kind. Maybe your neighbor "went to temple" last week and put on his "long-handled underwear." In any case, if he "takes the water" on Sundays or when it isn't his "turn," you warn him he'll "get his church cut off." If he sees you spreading manure on your lawn, he may rally you about "spreading the gospel." That cranky brother has a "smile as sour as the ripple on a swill barrel." The weather is "colder than a witch's teat." The dunce in school was "born on washday." One with a sudden inspiration has a "wild-hair." That "ham-scrammin' " girl you flatter "takes it in like cream from the cat-jar." Do you want to damn a stingy man? You tell him he has in his veins "the blood of a profit."

Paradoxical Utah!

Another early (approximate) occurrence is in J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951), page 4 [snippet]:

Anyway, it was December and all, and it was cold as a witch's teat, especially on top of that stupid hill. I only had on my reversible and no gloves or anything. The week before that, somebody'd stolen my camel's-hair coat right out of my room, with the fur-lined gloves right in the pocket.

The first found instance of "colder than a witch's tit" is in Literary America vol. 2, issue 2 (1935), page 139 [snippet]:

"Where's Millar?" I asked, knowing.

It was a cue for a duet. They must have rehearsed it.

"Hung, Barr, hung. With that Chink belt you're holding there. Dead for over a month. Colder than a witch's tit."

This last is a brief snippet from a story of unknown length, but I confirmed elsewhere that volume 2 issues of Literary America were published in 1935.

The next-oldest instance is in Jerome Weidman, I'll Never Go There Any More (1941), page 58 [snippet]:

"It's the summer. You have to expect heat in New York in the summer no matter where you are. But wait till the wintertime comes. It'll be as cold as a witch's tit."

"The wintertime? You didn't sublet this for the full year, did you?"

"Certainly I did. You don't think I was going to let a bargain like this slip by. I sewed it up for the whole year. Why?"

Google Books also finds a reference to the similar "dry as a witch's tit" in an unidentified snippet in Tomorrow, vol. 10 (1950), page 15 [snippet]:

"My God-damn lighter's gone dry as a witch's tit," the boy said, and Janos could hear the rasp of the lighter's stone in his hand. "I got to get me to a P.X. and get me some lighter fluid. I got to find me an American shoe-repair and get some soles put on my shoes. I walked through 'em today, but I got the schnapps," he said. When he sat up in the hay, his head and his neck and his shoulders in the G.I. sweater showed dark against the starry square of night.

However, Robert L. Chapman & Barbara Ann Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, Third Edition (1995), argues that these allied expressions are offshoots of an older tradition:

cold as (or colder than) hell adj phr (Variations: charity or Kelsey's ass or a welldigger's ass or a witch's tit may replace hell) charity form by 1835, witch's tit by 1932, welldigger's ass by 1940's. Kelsey was often identified as the welldigger Very cold In Chicago that December 1955, it was colder than a well-digger's ass in the Klondike—Earl Thompson/ It's as cold as a witch's tit outside—Van Wyck Mason

Supposedly, the Van Wyck Mason quotation comes from a 1932 mystery novel titled Spider House, though I haven't been able to confirm that claim directly.

In any event, Google Books finds instances of "cold as charity" going back to James Howell, Paroimiographia: Proverbs, or, Old Sayed Sawes & Adages (1659), page 16, which lists "As cold as Charity" as an English proverb.

To my surprise, the first Google Books matches for "cold as hell" are much more recent than those for "cold as charity." The earliest occurrence of "cold as hell" that I've found in Google Books is in P.T. Barnum, Struggles and Triumphs; Or Forty Years' Recollections of P.T. Barnum (1873), page 246:

Early one morning, several of these youths came upon deck, and, meeting the Doctor there, one of them exclaimed: "It is cold as hell this morning, ain't it, Doctor?"

"I am unable to state the exact height of the thermometer in that locality," said he gravely; "but I am afraid you will know all about it some time, if you are not careful."

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  • Thanks! It would be good to include links back to Google Books, and to note which are snippet view because they're often misdated or sometimes even snippets of different books entirely, and need confirming elsewhere. – Hugo Dec 19 '13 at 3:39
  • Hi, Hugo. Most of them are snippet views that I enlarged by searching for the phrases at the edges of the quotations. I learned my lesson about bundled packets of books in an earlier answer, and tried to confirm that the entries were book-length this time around. But I'll try to add links for the extracts in the next 30 minutes. – Sven Yargs Dec 19 '13 at 3:43
  • Incidentally, Hugo, a snippet from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (1950) has the same "knocked cold" usage of "colder than a witch's kiss" that you cite in your original example: "John J. Malone had never been at more of a disadvantage, but in the coolness of desperation he managed to roll with the punch, and then brought his manacled wrists heavily down on the big man's head, knocking him colder than a witch's kiss." See books.google.com/…. – Sven Yargs Dec 19 '13 at 4:28

I believe that the phrase, "colder than a witch's tit." originally was meant literally, based on the belief that witches (real witches who were in league with the Devil) nursed their familiars from a tit given to them by the Devil for that purpose, and that that tit (which could be anywhere on their body) was cold.

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  • Interesting. Do you have or can you find any references for this? (Perhaps in Google Books.) – Hugo Dec 18 '13 at 12:36
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    @Hugo: There were definitely some strange beliefs about witch's tits that were related to testimony at the Salem witch trials. However, unless the expression "colder than a witch's teat" is a lot older than its first appearance in the corpora, there's a couple of centuries discrepancy here. – Peter Shor Dec 24 '13 at 18:17

It looks to be related to another body part of the witch (more usually referred to as a cold one).

You can find more information by following these links: Barrypopik, Wikipedia.

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    Her nose? Toes? Please write a complete answer rather than linking to another site, or at least summarise, as it may suffer from linkrot. – Hugo Dec 16 '13 at 12:10
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    Perhaps he is embarrassed writing the slang for female mammary gland containers – mplungjan Dec 16 '13 at 12:53
  • @mplungjan He could use the North American euphemism of chickadee for members of the Poecile genus. – tchrist Dec 16 '13 at 12:56
  • Lol.... Brings to mind youtube.com/watch?v=U-KiyEyTXfk although how W.C. fields becomes a chickadee boggles the mind – mplungjan Dec 16 '13 at 12:59

Spoiler: This may come as a serious disappointment to some. There's no cold witch's kiss.

It seems the expressions are "knock (someone) cold" and "witch's kiss", not "colder than a witch's kiss" (other than "Le baiser de la sorcière").

knock cold

To render unconscious; knock out.

witch's kiss
(purportedly, in comics) A mark that appears on a human targeted by a Witch. Hence, "cold"; lifeless.

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