I'm reading the book Roots by Alex Haley, which is about a history of an American black family in the US starting from Kunta Kinte, an African brought to the country as a slave. My question concerns the following passage from the book:

"He [Kunta] was sorry he [an old slave] had been through so much, but he couldn’t help turning a cold ear toward anyone who just rolled over and gave up."

I could not find the idiom "turning a cold ear" in any online dictionary of English idioms. Could it be that the phrase is African in its origin (which makes it a calque) and the narrator uses it to stress Kunta's difference to the other blacks who were born slaves, unlike Kunta?

  • 3
    @Lambie - yes but "turn a cold ear to someon" does sound idiomatic.!
    – user66974
    Oct 7, 2016 at 15:36
  • 2
    Could this be some sort of link to turning a cold shoulder? Perhaps the author has built upon that pre-existing idiom to suggest that someone if being ignored via the age old 'silent treatment'? Oct 7, 2016 at 15:49
  • 1
    Note that "turning a deaf ear" towards someone is a fairly common idiom for ignoring them. I would interpret "turning a cold ear" towards someone to mean treating what they say unsympathetically.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 7, 2016 at 16:12
  • 3
    As McCaverty's comment to JOSH's answer states, this seems like a case of a mixed metaphor, or at least something similar. Perhaps Haley tried to cross his bridges before they hatched, and it just came out a little weird.
    – cobaltduck
    Oct 7, 2016 at 17:47
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    A quick Google search reveals the expression "turn a cold ear to" has been used in literature for more than 200 years. So this is not an invention by Haley.
    – MetaEd
    Oct 7, 2016 at 18:56

1 Answer 1


Probably the expression meant was give somebody the cold shoulder which, from what I can understand from the contex, could fit:

  • to show no interest in someone or something.

    • Our town council has given the cold shoulder to a proposal to build a public swimming pool. I'd love to know why Bill gave the cold shoulder to Janice.
  • 7
    Yeah, it sounds like a combination of turning a deaf ear and giving a cold shoulder.
    – McCaverty
    Oct 7, 2016 at 15:13

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