A Georgia woman who had disappeared a few days before her wedding turned up last weekend in New Mexico; she first told police she had been abducted, but in the end she confessed to having had cold feet. Follow-up stories have quoted psychologists who guess “there’s more going on here than just cold feet” and wedding planners who say that brides-to-be get cold feet all the time. Where did this phrase come from?
The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the earliest usage of “cold feet” in this sense to the writer and poet Stephen Crane. In the second edition of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets(which was published in 1896), Crane writes, “I knew this was the way it would be. They got cold feet.” That is, they lost courage or enthusiasm. By the early 1900s, the phrase was being used on college campuses. And a few years later the term “cold-footer” was applied to those who were afraid to fight in the Great War.
The wartime usage of “cold feet” has led some to claim that the phrase originally referred to soldiers whose frost-bitten toes prevented them from entering a battle. But earlier usage makes no such reference. In a 1912 letter to the editors of Modern Language Notes, J. F. L. Raschen identifies the phrase in a popular German novel by Fritz Reuter published in 1862: According to an English translation from 1870, a winning card-player who is afraid his luck is turning decides to leave the table with a case of “cold feet.” In the ensuing banter, the characters play off of the literal meaning of the phrase: “If you suffer from cold feet,” says a fellow player, “I will tell you a good remedy. …” Reuter uses the phrase earlier in the same book, again with a pun: This time, it’s a shoemaker who gets cold feet.
The fact that Reuter makes a joke of the phrase on at least two occasions suggests that German-speakers had only recently begun to “get cold feet” (kalte Füße bekommen). Or it could have been a recent addition to the Mecklenburg dialect spoken by Reuter’s characters. In either case, English-speakers may have adopted the phrase via a direct, word-for-word translation of the German idiom; linguists call this a calque. The English word “superman,” for example, is a direct translation from the German Übermensch. These word-for-word adoptions of foreign idioms often arise from formal translations of literary works (as with Nietzsche) or from the informal translations of immigrant English-speakers. The Germans who arrived in America in the latter half of the 19th century may have brought “cold feet” with them.
On the other hand, a second letter to Modern Language Notes,from Kenneth McKenzie in 1912, suggests that the phrase has a longer history. Ben Jonson uses a similar expression in the play Volpone from 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.” McKenzie explains that the Lombard proverb (and the Italian phrase Aver freddo ai piedi—”to be cold in the feet”) means “to have no money”, which, at least in a gambling context, might result in a card-player’s decision “to recede from a difficult position.”
But if the figurative meaning of “cold feet” does come from the Italian proverb, there are very few references to it between 1605 and the late 1800s. These days the “cold on my feet” construction seems to be used only in the literal sense.
Explainer thanks Ben Zimmer of Rutgers University and reader Thomas Galvin for asking the question.