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Cuts no ice

Q From Chris Coolbear: I have heard the expression cuts no ice once or twice, but never knew where it came from until just recently. I was reading The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian, and found it was there explained as being “a variant upon the Iroquois katno aiss’ vizmi — I am unmoved, unimpressed”. I am not sure whether this is true, but having read many of Patrick O’Brian’s books and the historical accuracy that he put in them, I think that this may well be the correct derivation of this phrase.

A Oh, very droll. You have fallen victim to Mr O’Brian’s sense of humour, as expressed through one of his characters. The supposed Iroquois expression is, of course, just a respelled version of the English (so the joke works better on paper than in speech). As the idiom isn’t known until late in the nineteenth century it could not have been discussed by British sailors of the Napoleonic era in which the book is set. Whether Mr O’Brian knew this can’t now be ascertained, though I’ve caught him out in one or two anachronisms that show that his knowledge of etymology was less complete than his skill in historical seamanship. But then, his novels weren’t intended as historical English dictionaries.

Having knocked this supposed origin out of court with a single blow from a volume of the Oxford English Dictionary, I have to confess to being at something of a loss how to proceed. The trouble with idioms is that they’re sleek and squirmy little beasts, hard to get a firm grip on preparatory to dissecting them. Cuts no ice, to have no influence or effect, is a classic of its type.

The only solid information I have is that it’s first recorded in the US. The earliest example I’ve been able to track down is this:

If the village audience maintains a stony silence the lecturer can cut no ice, but once the villager can be drawn into an argument or made to laugh at himself the battle is won.

The Genesis and Ethics of Conjugal Love, by Andrew Jackson Davis, 1874. Davis, known as the Poughkeepsie Seer, was a spiritualist who dictated his works while in a trance.

A frequent explanation of cuts no ice holds that it has something to do with real ice. This was before refrigeration, of course, when blocks of ice were sold for cooling food and drinks. One suggestion I’ve come across is that something that has no effect or makes no impression is like a knife too blunt to shave ice off a block, or that it refers to cutting blocks of ice from a pond or river, so that something or somebody that cuts no ice is useless. Blunt ice skates have also been put forward as the source of the expression.

These all seem unnecessarily complicated. There were other phrases around at the time of its creation that refer to the qualities of ice, such as putting something on ice, keeping it in reserve until needed. And we speak of cutting the ice or breaking the ice at parties or other social events, meaning to break down barriers of reserve and get people to enjoy themselves.

My feeling is that cuts no ice was a figurative expression right from the start, based on the very common presence of ice in the home and playing on its hardness and coldness as a metaphor for unresponsiveness or lack of empathy.

Page created 2 May 2009

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Last modified: 2 May 2009.