“Break the ice” is an idiom used to describe the process of overcoming initial social awkwardness.
The phrase can be used in almost any situation when someone’s looking for a way to get to know new people or those they haven’t seen in a while. The phrase is often cited as having originated from ice breaker ships that were constructed to be strong enough to push through patches of ice in the ocean.
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Meaning of “Break the ice”
“Break the ice” is used to describe the process of overcoming initial social awkwardness. This might occur when people are meeting for the first time, for the first time in a while, or when a group is coming together that hasn’t worked together before. If someone says they want to “break the ice” it means they want to do something that’s going to relieve the awkwardness and allow everyone to relax. Usually, this means getting to know the other person or people and sharing in some kind of activity. Often, games, written or spoken activities, and series of questions can help to break the ice.
When To Use “Break the ice”
The phrase “break the ice” can be used in any situation that one thinks might be, or is, awkward. When two new friends, or a group, meets for the first time it’s likely going to be awkward. It’s important to do something, say something, or create an activity that breaks the ice. One person might say, “Let’s break the ice by playing a game.” Or, “ let me break the ice by telling a story about [any event of the past].” These possible uses are the most common.
- It’s about time we break the ice.
- What can we do to start this meeting off right and break the ice?
- She told me the only way to break the ice is to play some kind of game.
- My students always hate it when I try to break the ice on the first day of school.
- It’s best to break the ice if you’re trying to get to know someone better.
Why Do Writers Use “Break the ice?”
Writers use “break the ice” in the same way and for the same reasons that the phrase comes up in everyday speech. An “ice breaker” might come into a scene in a classroom, group meeting, or club. The use of the phrase will likely be familiar to most readers and they will therefore establish a closer connection and understanding with the characters. When a reader comes across a phrase in writing they themselves use, it’s more likely that they’ll feel empathy in regard to the person who used it. It should be noted though that just as ice breakers can be awkward, it’s easy to use the idiom awkwardly as well.
Origins of “Break the ice”
Like most idioms, “break the ice” does not have a defined origin. Often, these phrases evolve naturally over time without a single inventor or progenitor. The first record scholars have of the phrase being written down is in Plutarch’s Lives of the noble Grecians and Romanes. The line reads:
To be the first to break the Ice of the Enterprize.
This work was translated by Sir Thomas North in 1579. This iteration is a great example of how a phrase not only evolves into common use, it also changes meaning until it’s fully established in the English (or any other) language. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the phrase took on its current meaning. There is a good example of it in Hudibras by Samuel Butler, published in 1678. It reads:
The Oratour – At last broke silence, and the Ice.
Some believe that the phrase came into use through references to ice-breaking sailing ships. These ships had extremely durable hulls and powerful engines that were meant to push through thick regions of ice. Readers will likely also be familiar with the term “ice breaker” as it is used in everyday conversation. An “ice breaker” is the thing that “breaks the ice.” It is the game, story, series of questions, etc.