The Grammarphobia Blog

The emperor’s cold feet

Q: Professor Wadding, a minor character in The Transit of Venus, says the expression “cold feet” comes from Emperor Henry IV’s waiting in the snow at Canossa to meet Pope Gregory VII. Is this etymology too good to be true?

Yes, that’s a fictitious story, but don’t blame Shirley Hazzard, the author of the novel. Blame Professor Wadding, who is deliberately portrayed as a pompous twit and a fount of academic gobbledygook.

The use of “cold feet” to mean a lack of courage, confidence, or resolve actually appeared in writing for the first time in the late 19th century, more than 800 years after the Pope is said to have kept the Emperor waiting for three wintry days outside Canossa Castle.

The expression showed up in writing for the first time in two American works of fiction published in 1896:

“He’s one o’ them boys that never has cold feet and there’s nothin’ too good for a friend.” (From Artie: A Story of the Streets and Town, a novel by George Ade.)

“I knew this was the way it would be. They got cold feet.” (From Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, a novella by Stephen Crane. The citation is found in the 1896 second edition, but not the 1893 first, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.)

Word sleuths have found earlier examples of “cold feet” in fiction, but the phrase is used either literally or in a different figurative sense.

For example, the phrase shows up several times in an 1878 English translation of Seed-time and Harvest, a novel by the German writer Fritz Reuter.

In one scene, a winning card player decides to leave the table when his lucks changes: “so he rose and said his feet were getting cold, and put his winnings in his pocket.”

Other players then accused him of using “cold feet” as an excuse: “Don’t you always get cold feet at our club, when you have had good luck?” one said.

(The title of the novel is from Genesis 8:22: “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”)

And in Volpone, a 1606 comedy by the English playwright Ben Jonson, the title character says: “Let me tell you: I am not, as your Lombard proverb saith, cold on my feet; or content to part with my commodities at a cheaper rate, than I accustomed: look not to it.”

Kenneth McKenzie, who was an Italian scholar at Yale University, says in a December 1912 letter in Modern Language Notes that “to be cold in the feet” in the Lombard dialect (as well as in modern Italian) means to be “hard up”—that is, “without money.”

As for Canossa, Emperor Henry IV may have had cold feet, both literally and figuratively, as he waited outside the castle in January 1077. But there’s no evidence  that the expression “cold feet” was ever used figuratively at the time to describe his submission to the will of Pope Gregory VII.

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