MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why Do We Say We Get “Cold Feet”?

No one likes cold feet. Especially a husband whose wife brings her ice-cold tootsies into a warm bed. But, what about figurative “cold feet”, like when someone in a business deal pulls out at the last minute? Or, what about the situation where we hear the phrase most often: wedding nuptials? Why is a groom or bride, who thinks twice about spending eternity with their future spouse, suddenly said to develop cold feet? Where did the phrase come from?

One theory is that “cold feet” came from World War I soldiers who developed frostbite on their toes & were no longer able to serve. Then, people who later were reluctant to serve in World War II were said to be “cold-footers”. But, the origin of “cold feet” actually came long before the wars, possibly centuries before.

An 1805 newspaper column, attributed to The Washington Post, depicted a poker game where the author said he planned to leave the game once he developed a case of “cold feet,” or a reluctance to continue losing money if things weren’t going his way. It wasn’t necessarily the first published use of the phrase, but it does seem likely that, by that time, “cold feet” was synonymous with games of chance. For instance, Seed Time & Harvest author Fritz Reuter used the phrase in his 1862 German-language novel to describe a card player who left a game after developing a case of “cold feet”.

Using “cold feet” to describe a cautious gambler could go all the way back to the 1605 play Volpone, where playwright Ben Jonson used the Italian proverb “cold on my feet” to refer to someone without enough money for adequate footwear. So, the “cold feet” of gamblers with dwindling funds eventually grew to describe anyone who metaphorically walks away from the table for anything.

Now, how “cold feet” expanded from just general anxiety to wedding worries isn’t all that clear. But, it could be because someone with cold feet considers love to be as much of a gamble as poker.

Got a Mundane Mystery you’d like solved? Send me a message via social media (@AndyWebbRadioVoice), or shoot me an email at [email protected].

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