To Cool One’s Heels – 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.

Chances are, you have been told to cool your heels, calm down, and chill out at some point in your life.

To cool one’s heels is an idiom stemming from a literal cooling-off in reference to horses. However, through the years, it has taken on figurative use. It is a diverse term that generally means to wait but which can be used in an authoritative or respectful tone as well as in a condescending manner.

Learn about the origins behind the phrase to cool one’s heels, its meaning, and how to use it in a modern sense.

What Is the Meaning of Cool One’s Heels?

To Cool Ones Heels Idiom Origin Meaning

To cool one’s heels means to take a rest or to wait, but its use can take on a variety of meanings depending upon the context in which it is used.

In its most basic form, it simply means to wait without prejudice and to relax while doing so.

For example:

  • Even though her comments upset me, I chose to sit and cool my heels while I thought over my next action.

To cool one’s heels is often used to demand somebody to stay and wait in a condescending manner, usually to await chastisement or punishment.

For example:

  • He looked over at the wayward student, pointed at the chair outside the principal’s office, and told him to cool his heels while thinking about fixing the mess he had created.

The term can also be used to detain someone or remind them they are obliged to wait.

For example:

  • After cooling his heels for the past three hours, he was finally called into the reporter’s office to share the evidence.

Origins of Cool One’s Heels

Cool Ones Heels vs Cooling the Feet Ngram
Cool one’s heels and cooling the feet usage trend.

The literal origins of cooling one’s heels are related to horseback travel and horse racing in the 1500s. After a long trip or racing, it was customary to help cool off a horse by wetting down, or cooling down, their lower legs. This practice is still used today as it aids in blood circulation.

A variation, cooling the feet, was supposedly used in a literal sense in relation to horse racing in the 1570s, with “coole the heeles” in use by the early 1600s. George Chapman’s translation of the “Illiad,” published in 1611, included “cool’d their hoofs” in reference to waiting for something to occur.

By 1673, a French-English Dictionary included “Je te feray corapter des chevilles,” which translates to “I will make you cool your heels before you have it.”

Let’s Review

Idiomatic phrases are a way to add figurative details and explanations to speech and writing. Most idioms have a strong literal meaning that may either still be in use or considered out of date as figurative use has become more popular over the years.

To cool one’s heels means to wait and is usually used to demand a person to calm down or force them to wait until there is time for them. It can be used in a controlling or condescending manner, or it can be used to get a person to relax and contemplate their next course of action.