B – Break the Ice

For my first “B” idiom, I thought I’d go for something that we probably all do on a very regular basis – ‘break the ice’!

You can try to break the ice in various situations; making new friends at Uni, meeting new colleagues at work, at a job interview, meeting the boyfriend’s/girlfriend’s parents… But what does it actually mean?

What does ‘break the ice’ mean?

Well, when you break the ice, you’re trying to make a potentially awkward situation more palatable by saying or doing something that makes the scenario more relaxed and friendly. Quite often, it will be a situation where you are meeting said person for the first time, and it could be for a variety of reasons. If you wanted to break the ice at a job interview, it’s likely you are trying to appear friendly and make a good impression, so you may say something witty and intelligent. Or if you are trying to make new friends at University, you may try to break the ice by offering to buy the first round at the pub.

So when you think about what ‘break the ice’ means in real terms, the idiom itself at face value doesn’t make much sense. So let’s find out where it came from…

Break the ice | A to Z of Idioms

‘Break the ice” origins

I start with a really fascinating interpretation found in Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins by Julia Cresswell, who explains that originally, breaking the ice was as literal as it sounds, where ice was broken to enable a free passage for boats to pass through when the water was frozen. Interestingly, another source even claims that the ships that broke the frozen water were called “ice breakers” themselves! This literal meaning was in use around the 1500s, and it wasn’t until the end of the century that it started to take on a slightly different meaning. By the end of the 16th century, people started to use ‘break the ice’ to mean “to begin an undertaking”; so we can start to see this idiom taking shape a little.

I do wonder why ‘break the ice’ went from meaning to literally break frozen water to “beginning an undertaking” in the space of such a short time (linguistically speaking), but I suppose it’s quite logical that people would view breaking ice for ships as an undertaking itself (wouldn’t you?) – so perhaps that’s why this idiom took on this form at this point in history.

Harry Oliver explains this idea in a little more detail in Bees Knees and Barmy Armies – Origins of the Words and Phrases we Use Every Day. Whilst ‘break the ice’ was first used to describe breaking ice to allow for a clear path for boats to travel, in the 16th century the phrase started to be applied more figuratively, in the sense that to break the ice meant to “set some form of endeavour in motion by creating a path for others to follow”. So it seems that in the 16th century, the phrase generally meant to have clear path for something or someone to pass through – both literally and metaphorically.

So how did the phrase become what we know it to be today? It still doesn’t quite make sense that breaking the ice for ships to pass would then lead to making a social situation less awkward. Anais John, writing for Grammerly, has an interesting interpretation that may help to explain this. Apparently, the country being entered into by the ships would dispatch small boats to break the ice that was blocking the ship’s path. This was a gesture that would show a sign of friendship and affiliation to the entering ships. This explanation certainly fits in with our modern day interpretation; people make an effort to break down the barriers of social awkwardness to make a good a impression, which is a sentiment that ‘break the ice’¬†originally seemed to dictate.

I don’t know about you, but the next time I need to break the ice, I’ll be far too distracted with thinking about ice-breaking ships!

Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins – Julia Cresswell – 2010
Bees Knees and Barmy Armies – Origins of the Words and Phrases we Use Every Day – Harry Oliver – 2008