Cold Feet – Idiom, Origin & Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

What Does It Mean to Have Cold Feet? Taken literally, it must mean your feet are cold, but did you know it also has a figurative use?

Cold feet is an idiom or series of words that can be used outside of their literal definition when taken separately. Idioms are among the most frustrating expressions for English language learners to use, but once mastered, they provide excellent analogies when you need to emphasize a point.

If you are looking for a way to use the phrase cold feet correctly, continue reading!

Defining the Expression, Cold Feet

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To have cold feet means to be timid, to be hesitant to do something, to back out of a commitment, to lose heart, or to lose courage.

Someone who has cold feet has become faint-hearted, fearful, or simply has reconsidered his position and has second thoughts. A person who breaks an engagement or reneges on a promise to marry someone is said to have gotten cold feet.

For example:

  • She got cold feet at the last second and ended up turning down his prom invitation.
  • The kindergarten play was hilarious due to the number of students who got cold feet and spent the entire time peeking out from behind the curtains.

However, the idiom cold feet may also apply to any situation in which one suddenly becomes reticent, such as an investment or business deal.

For example:

  • It was cold feet that kept him from moving forward with the investment portfolio.
  • Her cold feet had nothing to do with fear and everything to do with skyrocketing interest rates.

Synonyms of Cold Feet

If you aren’t digging the expression “cold feet,” you can consider expressing the loss of courage in another way. Synonyms of cold feet include:

  • Freeze up – As she took the stage, she completely froze up and forgot her lines.
  • Chicken out – Don’t you chicken out on me now! We have three more visits to make!
  • Lose your nerve – I absolutely lost my nerve when the teacher stared me down.
  • Wimp out – No, he didn’t come with us to the bridge. He totally wimped out.
  • Lose face – If you don’t show up at the party, you will lose face with his parents and have some apologies to make.

Where Did the Saying Cold Feet Come From?

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Use of the Idiom Cold Feet in Writing

The idiom cold feet is attributed to Stephen Crane’s 1896 novel: Maggie, a Girl of the Streets:

  • The mere boy occupied himself with cocktails and cigar. He was tranquilly silent for half an hour. Then he bestirred himself and spoke. “Well,” he said, sighing, “I knew this was the way it would be. They got cold feet.”

However, earlier uses of the expression have been found, suggesting by the time Crane used it, it was already a well-established phrase.

For example, a variation of the term has been traced to an Italian proverb quoted in the comedy play, Volpone, produced in 1605:

  • Let me tell you: I am not, as your Lombard proverb saith, cold on my feet; or content to part with my commodities at a cheaper rate than I am accustomed: look not for it.”

In this case, “cold on my feet” means to be lacking money.

Let’s Review

The expression can be used literally to mean somebody has chilly feet, but as an idiom, it offers a much more expressive idea: namely that a person is too scared to do something or simply is hesitant in their actions.