Q: How did “break the ice” come to mean get a conversation going? Does it have something to do with the ice cubes in a drink at a cocktail party?
A: No, this figurative use of the expression “break the ice” doesn’t have anything to do with scotch on the rocks or any other drink with ice cubes.
It ultimately comes from breaking ice to clear the way for a vessel to get through a frozen waterway. However, the figurative sense apparently showed up in English more than a century before the expression was used literally.
The Oxford English Dictionary says “break the ice” is an Anglicized version of the medieval Latin expression scindere glaciem, which Erasmus added in 1528 to his Adagia, Greek and Latin adages that he collected from 1500 to his death in 1538.
Erasmus, writing in Latin, says the figurative meaning of scindere glaciem is “to open the way and be the first to carry out a task.” He says this sense is derived from sending a crewman of a boat ahead to break up the ice and open the way on a frozen river.
In The Adages of Erasmus (2001), William Barker says the figurative sense in medieval Latin cited by Erasmus isn’t found in classical Latin literature.
Barker notes that Erasmus attributed the figurative usage to the 15th-century Italian humanist Franceso Filelfo, who used glaciem fregi (“I have broken the ice”) in his Epistolae.
When the expression first showed up in English, according to the OED, it meant to “make a beginning in an undertaking or enterprise, esp. in the face of difficulty or resistance.”
The earliest Oxford example is in a 16th-century passage about John Fisher, a Roman Catholic bishop and theologian executed by Henry VIII:
“This reuerend father … chaunced … to be one of the first that brake the yse, and [showed] … the inconvenience that followed [the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon].”
(The passage, which the OED tentatively dates at 1553-77, is cited in The Life of Fisher, a 1921 biography by Richard Hall and the Rev. Ronald Bayne.)
The dictionary’s next example, which uses the expression to mean “to prepare the way for others,” is from A Briefe Treatise of Testaments and Last Willes (1590), by Henry Swinburne:
“The authour therefore in aduenturing to breake the yse to make the passage easie for his countrymen, failing sometimes of the fourd [ford or crossing], and falling into the pit, may seeme worthie to be pitied.”
The first literal example in the OED is from a 1710 article in the Tatler by Richard Steele: “The Ice being broke, the Sound is again open for the Ships.” (Steele, who founded the magazine with Joseph Addison, wrote under the pen name “Isaac Bickerstaff Esquire.”)
The use of the sense you’re asking about is defined in the dictionary as to “break through cold reserve or stiffness, esp. facilitating conversation or social ease.”
The first example in the OED is from the English writer Samuel Jackson Pratt’s Gleanings Through Wales, Holland and Westphalia (1795):
“Notwithstanding … there is an air of distance, reserve, and even coldness, they are all … replete with an anxious desire to break the ice.”