'Give Someone The Cold Shoulder': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on October 1, 2023

What does it mean to 'give someone the cold shoulder?' In this article, you'll learn all about the meaning of this popular idiom, its origins, and how to use it.

But if you just want the short version, here it is:

  • To 'give someone the cold shoulder' means to ignore or treat someone in an unkind manner deliberately.

What Does 'Give Someone The Cold Shoulder' Mean?

This phrase is an idiom, which means you shouldn't interpret it literally. We're not talking about literally giving someone a shoulder at a low temperature here, though some claim that is the origin of this phrase, as we'll find out later.

What it means when you give them the cold shoulder is treating someone indifferently. You ignore them, you snub them, you're cold with them; whichever way you want to put it, it's very unkind behavior. If you think about it, warmth is associated with love, so coldness describes the opposite sentiment.

The dictionary defines it as follows:

to intentionally ignore someone or treat someone in an unfriendly way 

Say, for example, that you made a new friend at a party on the weekend, and you saw them at school the following Monday, but when you went to speak to them, they pretended they didn't know you.

You might say:

I tried to talk to Tom but he gave me the cold shoulder. 

Bear in mind that when you use this phrase, you should replace the word 'someone' with the subject of the sentence (the person you're giving the cold shoulder to).

Where Does 'Give Someone The Cold Shoulder' Come From?

There are a few theories on the idiom's origins: 'give someone the cold shoulder,' but two of them stick out. Let's dig in.

A Sign of Good Hospitality

An old tradition says that when you hosted visitors in your home, you would serve them a delicious warm meal as a welcoming gesture. You could say this is still true today.

The story goes that when you had unwelcome visitors and wanted them to get the hint, you would serve them a cold meal: the opposite of a welcoming gesture. Specifically, you would serve them a cold shoulder of mutton. If that doesn't tip you off to the fact you're an unwanted guest, I don't know what will.

It is a widespread belief that this is where the idiom originates from, but it's also a very contested theory. Some say it's nothing more than folklore etymology.

Mistranslation of the Bible

The phrase originally appeared in Sir Walter Scott's 1816 novel The Antiquary, where he mistranslated a passage of the Vulgate Bible, the Latin phrase 'dederunt umerum recedentem':

Ye may mind that the Countess's dislike did na gang farther at first than just shewing o' the cauld shouther

The confusion comes from the fact that the Latin word 'umerus' means both back and shoulder.

Nonetheless, the word 'shouther' was a Scottish variation of the word' shoulder,' Sir Scott himself is Scottish, leading us to conclude that the idiom has Scottish origins. Furthermore, he went on to use the phrase again in his 1823 novel St Ronan's Well:

I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally.

Examples in Sentences

Now we've covered the meaning of this popular idiom and its possible origins, let's take a look at how it's used in real-life scenarios by way of a few examples.

When he tried to apologize for his mistake, she gave him the cold shoulder and walked away without a word.

After she canceled their plans again, Jane decided to give her friend the cold shoulder for a few days to cool off.

Despite his attempts to be friendly, his new coworkers seemed to give him the cold shoulder.

The team gave their coach the cold shoulder after a disappointing loss.

She had been trying to get his attention for weeks, but he continued to give her the cold shoulder.

When he asked her out on a date, she gave him the cold shoulder, making it clear she wasn't interested.

After they decided to break up, he expected her to give him the cold shoulder, but she surprised him by being civil and polite.

At the office, he felt out of place and was given the cold shoulder by most of the attendees.

When Tommy arrived at his new high school, the other kids gave him the cold shoulder until he proved himself friendly and approachable.

Despite her attempts to make amends, her sister continued to give her the cold shoulder, harboring a grudge.

Other Ways to Say 'Give Someone The Cold Shoulder'

Though 'give someone the cold shoulder' is a great way to say that you're ignoring someone, there are other ways to say it, too.

Here are some of them:

  • ignore someone
  • give someone the silent treatment
  • shut someone out
  • cut someone dead
  • brush someone off
  • avoid someone
  • snub someone
  • give someone the runaround
  • treat someone with indifference
  • ghost someone

In Conclusion

To conclude, giving someone the cold shoulder is not a very nice thing to do, although sometimes it might be necessary if you want to get the message across that you're annoyed with them. Although talking to them about it is often the best way forward.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!  

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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