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In Patrick O'Brian's novel The Fortune of War, two of the characters are discussing American English and the following dialogue takes place:

‘Why, sure,’ said Evans, in his harsh nasal metallic bray, ‘the right American English is spoke in Boston, and even as far as Watertown. You will find no corruption there, I believe, no colonial expressions, other than those that arise naturally from our intercourse with the Indians. Boston, sir, is a well of English, pure and undefiled.’

‘I am fully persuaded of it,’ said Stephen. ‘Yet at breakfast this morning Mr Adams, who was also riz in Boston, stated that hominy grits cut no ice with him. I have been puzzling over his words ever since. I am acquainted with the grits, a grateful pap that might with advantage be exhibited in cases of duodenal debility, and I at once perceived that the expression was figurative. But in what does the figure consist? Is it desirable that ice should be cut? And if so, why? And what is the force of with?’

After barely a moment’s pause, Mr Evans said, ‘Ah, there now, you have an Indian expression. It is a variant upon the Iroquois katno aiss’ vizmi – I am unmoved, unimpressed.

At The Free Dictionary [specifically COBUILD Idioms Dictionary, AHD, and The Dictionary of Clichés by Christine Ammer] are found a number of alternative origin possibilities for this phrase, but none mention an Iroquoi derivation.

Is this origin story true? Does the phrase "Cuts no ice with me" really derive from the Iroquoi language?

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    worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-cut4.htm Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 19:08
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    In "The Fortune of War," by Patrick O'Brian, the following explanation is offered: "It is a variant upon the Iroquois "katno aiss' vizmi" -- I am unmoved, unimpressed." Patrick O'Brian is notorious for his incredibly detailed historical research in his novels, so this could be a documented fact. Or it could be fiction, but why would he make this up? Does anyone know where we might check on this?
    – user 66974
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 19:14
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    As on-topic a question as I could imagine. Exactly the kind of question we like here.
    – Mitch
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 19:24
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    Patrick O'Brian was also known for making the occasional sly joke! Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 19:50
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    You are missing the point of the passage. Evans is claiming that Boston English is entirely identical to British English, except for a few borrowings from Indians. Confronted with an example of an Americanism, he pauses then claims it is an Iroquois expression, which he transparently makes up on the spot. Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 4:36

3 Answers 3

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The anecdote isn't true. There are reasons to approach this anecdote with skepticism:

  1. Iroquois is not a single language but a whole family of languages (cf. John Lawler's comment or "Iroquoian languages" on Wikipedia).

  2. Characters don't have to be right about everything they say. They may joke, prevaricate, or be ignorant.

  3. There is a history of spurious anecdotes about indigenous languages or language use (cf. the idea that Eskimoan languages have many more words for snow (Wikipedia)), not to mention how common folk etymologies are in general.

I investigated three avenues to find evidence for the claim: early uses of cut no ice, Iroquoian vocabularies, and Iroquoian syntaxes. No search yielded evidence that the phrase comes from "Iroquois." That leads me to suspect (agreeing with this internet source) that this is all a joke by O'Brian.

The turn of phrase emerges in the late 19th century

See "ice, n." in the Oxford English Dictionary:

P5. colloquial (originally U.S.). to cut ice (with someone) and variants: to carry weight, have an influence or effect (upon); to impress. Chiefly in negative or other non-assertive contexts.

1894 J. A. Frye Fables Field & Staff 176 ‘Huh! w'at youse say cuts no ice wid me!’ says I, scornful. ‘It's clean nutty dat youse are.’

That is a late date for a phrase purportedly from "Iroquois" to cross over into English. This being a set phrase from Iroquois also wouldn't explain the productive variants like "cut any ice" (1896) or "haven't been cutting much ice" (1904).

Early usage would also make other claims about its origins. For instance, one 1894 article claims that the turn of phrase comes from Yale:

"Money cuts no ice," to use a Yale term, and a poor fellow is as popular as his friend across the hall who has an unlimited bank account. ("Yale Students' Haunts", Daily Inter Ocean, 10 December 1894.)

Another article refers generically to "the boys":

The fact that Attorney General Knowiton does not agree with City Solicitor Hopkins as to the power of the license commissioners to issue additional licenses [...] and that he has advised the police commissioners of Lowell that they have the right to issue such licenses, is interesting, but it "cuts no ice," as the boys say, in the local situation. ("The Liquor Licenses," Worcester Daily Spy, 20 July 1895.)

Whether any of those other etymological claims are true or not, I haven't found any usages that connect to a supposed indigenous origin.

The vocabulary doesn't support it

Even if we take a Swadesh list of Algonquian and Iroquoian languages (Wiktionary), it is apparent that the basic words we'd be looking for don't exist. For example, here is I in several languages: enter image description here

There is nothing close to the words reported to mean "I am unimpressed": katno aiss' vizmi. The closest would be a Mohawk prefix like ka- for I, but that's shaky.

Similarly, one would be hard-pressed to find a translation for unimpressed in a dictionary or resource guide, let alone any similar word (like pleased or happy) that happens to look like the claimed phrase. While these resources aren't complete, they yield no evidence for words like the ones posed by O'Brian.

The syntax doesn't support it

This would take too long to answer completely, but take as an example Marianne Mithun's chapter "Noun and verb in Iroquoian languages: Multicategorisation from multiple criteria." Even in a brief read, one can see that verb words are formed through pronominal prefix, verb root, and aspect suffix. For instance, note these examples from Oneida illustrating the structure of several verbs:

enter image description here

That kind of structure doesn't admit the use of multiple word. Even if O'Brian had mistranscribed the form for the sake of fitting the character dialogue, it's hard to imagine words of this pattern in Oneida or similar structures.

Also, O'Brian's form doesn't feature the negative prepronominal prefix that may be expected with a translation of a negative like unimpressed, according to the Ontario Curriculum *Resource Guide* on Oneida, Cayuga, and Mohawk:

A verb with the negative prefix is always preceded by the negative particle yáh in Oneida, and iáh in Mohawk. In Cayuga, the negative particle te3› can sometimes be omitted.

So if ka- were somehow a first person pronominal prefix, we would expect another prefix before it.

For instance, negations in Oneida would look like this: enter image description here

But O'Brian's example lacks that negative prefix. It's hard to imagine how one could take the syntactic rules presented in some of these languages and come out with something that looks like the claimed phrase. One can't prove a negative, but these rules give one nothing for positively affirming O'Brian's character's claim.

It's a joke

Finally we're left with the realization that we may have taken a novelist's joke much too seriously, dug into newspapers to find no early claims that it comes from an Iroquoian language, and dug into resources on several languages in a failed attempt to find parallels. So no, this is probably not a true anecdote.

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    Thanks. It is the syntax analysis that is useful, and yet the phrase 'I am' appears to be something like 'kata' from your examples, which isn't far off.
    – DrMcCleod
    Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 6:40
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    "This being a set phrase from Iroquois also wouldn't explain the productive variants", why not? The phrase doesn't have memory. If English speakers are not aware of the "etymology" of the phrase I don't see why they would be compelled to keep it unaltered. The other evidence in this is rather compelling but I am skeptical of this claim. Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 23:05
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The book, The Fortune of War contains lightly fictionalized accounts of two sea battles in the War of 1812. Thus this is when the action takes place.

The entry for the phrase in the OED says it is first recorded in 1894 and is quite common thereafter:

P5. colloquial (originally U.S.). to cut ice (with someone) and variants: to carry weight, have an influence or effect (upon); to impress. Chiefly in negative or other non-assertive contexts.

1894 J. A. Frye Fables Field & Staff 176 ‘Huh! w'at youse say cuts no ice wid me!’ says I, scornful. ‘It's clean nutty dat youse are.’

1896 Amer. Stationer 7 May 794/1 If special features and big crowds ‘cut any ice’, some should be cut this month, for the spring races begin on May 6 and will last two weeks.

1904 Albany (N.Y.) Weekly Times 30 June 4 The czar is to send an ice-breaking boat to the Far East, realizing apparently that his forces haven't been cutting much ice over that way.

It would appear that

‘Yet at breakfast this morning Mr Adams, who was also riz in Boston, stated that hominy grits cut no ice with him.'

is an anachronism. As such, it can be disregarded.

Attributing words and sayings to ancient/esoteric languages has a long tradition based on ignorance and humour.

As an example. a meme that circulated on the internet a few years back was

Did you know that the word vegetarian does not come from "vegetable"? It comes from the Algonquin (or other suitable language) word meaning "bad hunter".

Veggy

As an aside, I note the quote found by Taliesin Merlin above:

"Money cuts no ice," to use a Yale term, and a poor fellow is as popular as his friend across the hall who has an unlimited bank account. ("Yale Students' Haunts", Daily Inter Ocean, 10 December 1894.)

In which the origin seems to be Yale - yet this does not gel with the tone of the quote (above) from the same year used by the OED - in which the speaker is clearly not a "Yale man".

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I’m gratified that people took the trouble to research this, but I took it to be humor. Stephen has apparently heard the use of an American word “riz” as the past tense of “raise” and uses it to test his interlocutor, who fails to notice. This flagged it as a joke for me. Such wordplay is common in the series. For example, Stephen alludes to the Biblical “bulls of Bashan”. The unread Jack mishears the phrase and afterward uses the phrase “bull in a basin”, revealing his ignorance of the Bible.

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