Glossary Home Idioms

Give someone the cold shoulder

To “give someone the cold shoulder” is an English-language idiom that’s used to describe one person ignoring or showing contempt for another.

The phrase is quite common, meaning that most readers if they encounter it or hear it said out loud, are going to understand exactly what the writer/speaker means. Like most idioms, it’s fairly cliché. This means that some writers may choose a novel phrase to evoke the same feeling/experience rather than “give someone the cold shoulder.”

Give someone the cold shoulder idiom meaning and origin


“Give someone the cold shoulder” is an idiom that’s used to describe what happens when one person ignores another.

If one friend gives another “the cold shoulder,” that means they pretend not to notice that person or ignore them in some other way. They might decide not to help them if/when they need help. There are a wide variety of reasons that this might happen, but usually, the phrase is associated with an incident in which one person is mad at another or has lost respect for them. Other words like “disdain,” “aloof,” “disregard,” and “contempt” are related to this idiom.

No one likes to be given the cold shoulder. Therefore, when’s someone describes the experience, it’s almost always going to have a negative tone unless that person is relishing in the fact that they’ve given the cold shoulder to someone else.

Example Sentences

  • I had to give her the cold shoulder yesterday.
  • There was no way we could spend any time with him after what he did. We had to give him the cold shoulder.
  • She had to pay the price for her actions. We’re all going to give her the cold shoulder for at least a week.
  • Did you see him give me the cold shoulder? I have no idea what I did.
  • Do you think I deserved to be given the cold shoulder?

When To Use “Give someone the cold shoulder”

It’s possible to use “give someone the cold shoulder” in numerous scenarios. The phrase might be used by a speaker to describe their actions or an action taken against them. It could also be used as a suggestion. For example, “Is it right for me to give him the cold shoulder after what he did?” Or “Do you think he’s giving me the cold shoulder?” The phrase is used to describe an action. Therefore, it’s only really used when that action has been or might be taken.

You might use the phrase when your friend, family member, or colleague is ignoring you or when you’re thinking about ignoring them.

Why Do Writers Use “Give someone the cold shoulder?”

Writers use “give someone the cold shoulder” in the same way and for the same reasons that people use the phrase in everyday conversation. It’s possible to create a character who is constantly being given, or is giving, the cold shoulder. Perhaps they have a number of issues in their personal life and are constantly alienating other characters. They might struggle in social situations and find themselves ignored or passed over by people they considered their friends. The phrase could be used in the writer’s description of a scene or event, in a narrator’s understanding of the same, or in a dialogue between characters.


The phrase “give someone the cold shoulder” is unlike some idioms in that it does have an origin, one that’s generally agreed upon by scholars. Academics have traced the words “cold shoulder” back to 1816 and Sir Walter Scott’s The Antiquary. He wrote:

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

The expression is, interestingly enough, a mistranslation from the original Latin. The phrase, “dederunt umerum recedentem,” as found in Book of Nehemiah 9.29 from the Vulgate Bible, is the source. It says “stubbornly they turned their backs on you” but was mistranslated to say “shoulder” rather than “back.” The phrase “cold shoulder” can also be found in St. Ronan’s Well, another Sir Walter Scott creation. It was first used in the United States in 1839.

Some have suggested that the idiom originated from the act of serving a cold cut of an animal, specifically to an unwanted guest or someone the host disrespects. But, this has been dismissed.


Is “Give the cold shoulder” an idiom?

Yes, “give the cold shoulder” is an idiom. It is an expression that requires context to understand. This means that without having heard it before and understood, through someone’s actions and other words, what it meant, it’s hard to comprehend. The words themselves do not define the phrase.

How do you give someone the cold shoulder?

To give someone the cold shoulder, you ignore them when they try to talk to you. If they ask for your help, you decline them, and if you see them in public, you pretend you don’t know them.

How do you use cold shoulder in a sentence?

You could say, “I was given the cold shoulder by an ex the other day,” or “I hate it when people give cold shoulders rather than resolve their issues.”

What is the tone of “give someone the cold shoulder?”

Depending on how the idiom is used, the tone could be disrespectful, determined, or outraged. It’s going to change depending on who is using, the person being ignored, or the person ignoring.

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