Q From Michael Thomas: I was recently working an acrostic puzzle and came upon the clue, “to break up with a loved one”. The answer, which I had never run across, was give the mitten. Could you explain the history of this phrase, please?
A It’s new to me, too, Mr Thomas, as it probably is to readers, since it is now extremely rare. The meaning has often been the one you give (in the American Civil War, a soldier who received a Dear John letter was said to have been given the mitten) but it could also often mean that a woman had rejected a unwelcome admirer out of hand. It occasionally meant that a student had been expelled from college or a workman had got the sack.
The works of P G Wodehouse help keep it in the public mind. He was rather fond of it, usually in the form hand somebody the mitten, and as so many of his stories featured couples constantly getting engaged and then breaking it off, it’s quite common in his work:
Jeeves, I’m sorry to say that fiancée of yours — Miss Watson, you know — the cook, you know — well, the long and the short of it is that she’s chosen riches instead of honest worth, if you know what I mean. ... She’s handed you the mitten and gone and got engaged to old Mr Little!
The Inimitable Jeeves, by P G Wodehouse, 1923.
It’s known to be at least 170 years old. It has sometimes been taken to be North American, as the examples that were written down first — in the 1840s — are from works by Thomas Chandler Haliburton of Nova Scotia, who had a keen ear for the vocabulary of his times. However, as it is also recorded in Britain and the US during much of the nineteenth century, it is probably an older British idiom that emigrants had carried abroad. In support of this, at the end of the century, the English Dialect Dictionary noted it as a British regional or dialect expression in the form to send one a mitten, to reject somebody or to cast them off.
Mitten, for a glove with two sections, one for the thumb and the other for all four fingers, comes from the French mitaine. One French authority has argued this was transferred from the Old French and surviving regional term mite, a pet name for a cat. It’s assumed the link is the cat’s paw. (In modern French a mitaine is a fingerless glove, with moufle having taken over the mitten sense.)
In old slang a mitten was a hand, as the shortened form mitt has been in US parlance. We might guess that a formal handshake was a symbol of rejection. An even more effective one would have been a slap across the face, though the use of give and hand in the idiom suggests otherwise. In north America, to give somebody the frozen mitt or the icy mitt are old variations on the theme, which likewise hint at an unfeeling and formal handshake. These could suggest a broader rejection than just in love:
Paunchy Connor has been my best — indeed my only — friend in this city, when every editor, publisher, and critic has given me the frozen mitt.
Shandygaff, by Christopher Morley, 1918.
Some speculate that the origin of give someone the mitten lies in the Latin mitto, to dismiss, via mittimus (“we send”), which was a legal order that committed a person to prison. If we extend the sense of mittimus to mean sending somebody away, it’s possible that it might have got wrapped up with mitten. But it’s a bit of a stretch.
It is much more probable that it derives from a French tradition by which a young lady who wished to decline a marriage proposal sent her suitor a pair of mittens. I have been told that a similar expression, to get mittens, is recorded in Finnish and that other European countries have had a custom of giving gloves as presents when an agreement was broached, such as a marriage contract. If the gloves were returned, it meant that the proposal was rejected. This may be connected with an old American custom of sending pairs of gloves with invitations to attend a funeral.
There’s enough evidence for the custom of giving gloves or mittens and having them rejected that we don't need to look further for the source of the idiom.