The Grammarphobia Blog

A cold case

Q: My brother works for a company that captures old recordings on various media and converts them to digital format. When no working reader can be found for a particular medium, the company says the medium has “gone cold.”

A: What a chilling figure of speech! But we like it. Someone who says an outdated medium has “gone cold” is drawing an analogy with death.

Since the 14th century, the Oxford English Dictionary says, the adjective “cold” has been used in speaking “of the human body when deprived of its animal heat; esp. of a dead body, of death, the grave.”

The OED’s first citation for “cold” used in this way is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous 14th-century poem written in Middle English.

In a section about the Trojan War, the poem has this line: “There mony modir son was colde” [There many a mother’s son was cold].

Five centuries later, in Sir Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), we find this couplet: “Then Deloraine, in terror, took / From the cold hand the mighty book.”

“Cold” has also been used over the centuries to describe people or things that are unfeeling (as in “a cold fish”), cruel (“cold blooded”), or timid (“to have cold feet”).

Similarly, images of coldness have been used to describe things that are weakened or outdated, like the trail or scent that has “gone cold,” or the detective’s “cold case,” or the journalist’s “cold news” or “cold story.”

The extension to outdated technological media is certainly appropriate!

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