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Breaking the ice

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Words of Mouth

Breaking the ice

We began “breaking the ice” of the North Atlantic’s frozen tides long before we ever used the expression to get an awkward conversation going at dinner parties.

Although history isn’t able to provide us with the exact origins of this popular saying, a few clues indicate where it might have come from.

 

“Breaking the ice” likely originated in the 15th or 16th century, when merchant ships began making year-round transatlantic journeys, farther and wider than ever before, and the age of polar expeditions was getting off to an energetic start. Only a century later did “breaking the ice” become an expression used to signify “taking the first step” or “creating a casual atmosphere,” as it is now understood in both English and French.

In the 18th century, the idiom retrieved its original literal meaning, partly due to the emerging commercialization of the ice trade, established thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of Frederic Tudor — the subject of an article in BESIDE’s most recent issue. Industrial steam-powered icebreakers carved paths through the frozen ocean while industrious entrepreneurs carved giant blocks out of frozen New England lakes and shipped them as far as the equator.

Mark Twain, in his memoir Life on the Mississippi, published in 1883, also used “icebreaker” to describe endeavours to make people feel comfortable in social gatherings. It can be said that, from then onwards, “breaking the ice” encompassed all of these meanings.

Incidentally, the expression may also arise from the morning rituals of northern inhabitants, who had to travel to the closest water source and break the ice to wash themselves. Since you had to keep your cool while being nearly naked in front of your neighbours, you were “breaking the ice” in every sense of the word.

 

It’s hard to tell whether this frosty phrase emerged first from popular use or industry lingo, but one thing remains clear: as soon as it emerged, “breaking the ice” was pretty much taken at face value; indisputable proof that ice had proved its worth well before becoming a must for refreshing our cocktails…

Read more . . .

Find our article on "breaking the ice" during the Ice Trade Era, in our latest issue.

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