Break the Ice—Idiom, Origin & Meaning

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

What does break the ice mean? Now, before you run to your freezer, let’s clear one thing up off the bat. This popular saying has nothing to do with ice cubes or an unfortunate incident with an iceberg. Nope, breaking the ice is all about social interactions and awkward silences, something we’re all familiar with. So, let’s slide right into it and see what breaking the ice really means.

To Break the Ice Meaning Explained

Break the Ice Idiom Origin Meaning

Breaking the ice isn’t about starting a snowball fight or an Antarctic expedition. It’s actually a really common idiom that describes the act of starting a conversation, especially in a tense or awkward situation, which is what the ice represents.

When you break the ice, you’re easing the tension and making people feel more comfortable. It’s the social equivalent of cracking open a window to let some fresh air in. My husband is a jokester, so he loves to break up tense situations by cracking jokes that don’t always land.

Break the Ice Origin and Etymology

As for the origins of this phrase, I’ll need to venture back to a time when breaking the ice was a literal task. Before the invention of modern transportation like gas-powered vehicles, the ships used for trade would always get stuck in the winter ice.

Smaller ships, better known as icebreakers, would be sent out to clear the way by breaking the ice. This enabled the larger ships to move freely. Similarly, in social situations, breaking the ice helps conversations to flow more freely.

But the saying first appeared in 1579 when Sir Thomas North translated Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, with an excerpt that reads, “To be the first to break the Ice of the Enterprize.”

Synonyms for Breaking the Ice

If you want to use a synonym for the phrase, here are a few alternative phrases that will work just as well!

  • Making the first move
  • Opening the floor
  • Getting the ball rolling
  • Setting the stage
  • Paving the way

Break the Ice Examples in a Sentence

Break the Ice Idiom Origin Meaning 1

Seeing phrases like this in the context of a full sentence always helps me understand it better. So, here are a few I came up with to show you how to use break the ice.

  • To make the new employee feel welcome, John tried to break the ice by asking about her hobbies and sharing details about his love of knitting.
  • Mary was great at breaking the ice at parties with her funny stories and uncanny impressions.
  • A business meeting isn’t the best time to crack jokes to break the ice. 
  • Our new team leader broke the ice at the meeting by sharing a hilarious story about an incident he had on the train that morning.
  • I always start my discussion panels on publishing by breaking the ice with a joke.

Cut the Tension

The next time you’re in an awkward or tense situation, don’t be afraid to break the ice. Remember, you don’t need an ice pick or a strong arm; all you need is a good conversation starter, maybe a joke or two, and the courage to take the first step. I hope my guide was helpful! Be sure to have a look at my other grammar guides and tips on idioms.