The idiom, to give someone the cold shoulder, meaning to snub them or treat them with aloofness, has been in use at least since the 1800’s.
If you look for lexical clues, you might assume that it has something to do with your own shoulder, and something you would do with your shoulder, as body language, toward another person, as in looking over your shoulder with a disdainful glance, or keeping a shoulder between you and a person you do not like, so that you are treating them “coldly” and thus giving them a “cold shoulder.”
Well, you will often find that searching for clues in the actual words an idiom uses will lead you astray.
Giving someone the cold shoulder did not originally, in all probability, have anything to do with body language.
The first recorded use of the expression was in literature was in Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary from 1816.
In it, the character Elspeth Cheyne talks about the behavior of his mother to Lord William, saying:
Ye may mind that the Countess’s dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shouther — at least it wana seen farther.
In case you are having trouble parsing that, I’ll translate: Realize that the Countess’s dislike did not go any farther at first than just showing the cold shoulder — at least that is all that was seen to occur.
This most probably was not the first use of the idiom, it’s just the first recorded use of it we know of, which means it is the only reliable way we have of dating the expression. The author used it later, however, and after this it appeared more and more in literature, such as in works by Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Dickens, and others, having since entered into common usage.
The common assumption about the origin of the expression has something to do with either looking over your shoulder, or turning a shoulder towards someone. The idea, for example, is that you might look over your shoulder with a cold glance at someone you do not like or with whom you do not wish to associate. Therefore you are turning a “cold” shoulder. Or, you keep a shoulder, in coldness, between yourself and someone you dislike. People tend to assume that expressions with metaphorical meanings have metaphorical beginnings.
How often would we cast a dark glance, behind us, towards some unliked person? Or turn away from them and present them our shoulder in a show of disdain? So often that an idiom would be developed from the practice? There are many ways, after all, to show dislike for a person. Why should this one possible practice seem so important that it rates its own expression, and such a common one at that?
The mistake is to search for clues in the words and context. Since the expression involves you, and someone you dislike, you assume that it refers to your own shoulder, and your own coldness towards that person. The idea turning metaphorically away from a person does make sense. Even the term aloof itself fits. It comes from an old Dutch word, aloufe, which was a sailing term meaning to keep the ship pointed windward, which meant to turn it away from the shore, and thus away from people. To turn your back is to be aloof. It makes sense that to “turn a cold shoulder” means pretty much the same thing.
The temptation to find meaning in the vernacular, and in observation, is so strong that even the great Charles Darwin fell victim to it. In his work The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, he imagined that the expression described his observation that a cross child, if they are sitting on a parent’s knee, will jerk their shoulder away from a caress, and then give a backwards shove with it so as to push away the offending parent. Darwin said that they were “showing a cold shoulder.” Darwin assumed that the meaning in cliches could be found in lexical clues and observation, but often, cultural and historical knowledge is needed.
It seems unlikely that the origin of this expression is so pat, and it may not involve a human shoulder at all. The word cold could have originally referred to actual coldness, not figurative coldness.
The expression has long been believed to come from medieval times, when a welcome guest would be given shelter, drink, and a lavish meal. Some guests might be less welcome or might start out welcome but take advantage of this cultural requirement for hospitality, and quite literally wear out their welcome (we’ve all been there). In these times, the host would serve a cold shoulder of mutton to the guest, probably leftovers, a meal usually reserved for the upper household staff. It was a not-so-subtle way of saying, get lost!
Many dispute this origin, preferring to believe that the obvious written sources show proof of the term’s origin, when in fact, they show no origin at all, and only illustrate the idiom as it was being used by the time it appeared in print. Knowing how an expression was used, even in its earliest written appearances, is not the same as knowing how it was derived. At this time, we cannot be sure of the exact origin of the phrase, but there is no reason to completely discount the cold shoulder of meat origin.