Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Episode 152: Break the Ice Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 152: Break the Ice

Record Date: April 3, 2022

Air Date: April 6, 2022



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook

Have you ever been in a meeting, or at a conference, or maybe in class, and someone gives the group something to do to help everyone get more comfortable? We call those ice-breakers. And breaking the ice is our subject this week. 


For those of you who listen to the Endless Knot podcast with Aven and Mark (and you all should) you may remember Shauna and I briefly mention this phrase on their 100th episode. But it’s time we give this phrase the full treatment. 

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, an “icebreaker” is 


A game or joke that makes people who do not know each other feel more relaxed together

End Quote

And an icebreaker activity comes to us from the phrase “break the ice” which according to Cambridge means


To make people who have not met before feel more relaxed with each other

End quote

An icebreaker can take many different forms. Some that I’ve seen include things like:

Blank maps where you have to fill in as many of the objects as you can. Sometimes those may be political divisions, like States in the USA, or Countries in Europe. Others might be sports related, like name the baseball teams based on their home stadium. 

Another one I see often are brain teasers. These may include a riddle to solve or a list of questions so varied that one person likely won’t get them all. 

Some icebreakers may be personal statements, like two truths and a lie. In this example, players take turns saying three things about themselves, with two of them being true and one of them being a lie. The rest of the group has to work together to guess which one is the lie. 

If you have plenty of time, your icebreaker could be a group activity, like the spaghetti and marshmallow challenge where you use dry spaghetti noodles and small marshmallows to build the tallest tower or the longest bridge. 

The important thing about an icebreaker is to give the group a common goal that requires several people to work together to achieve. This promotes teamwork and social cohesion by giving everyone a shared vision of success. And oftentimes you’ll learn something new about your fellow attendees along the way.

Shauna, do you have any icebreakers that you really enjoy?

We’ve discussed how we use an icebreaker to break the ice. Seems simple enough. But how did “break the ice” come to mean getting strangers to talk to each other?

Well, before we talked about icebreakers, we mentioned Cambridge Dictionary’s current definition of break the ice:


To make people who have not met before feel more relaxed with each other

End quote

If we go back even further, we find the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, with


To make a beginning in an undertaking or enterprise, esp. in the face of difficulty or resistance

End Quote

It seems a logical step to go from making a beginning in the face of resistance to getting people who aren’t talking to each other to start talking to each other. So when did we start saying break the ice to do this?

We’ll start with Erasmus, who defined a non-literal usage of break the ice in Latin as, “scindere glaciem”. His usage had a meaning to figuratively open the way as in to be the first to do something.

But even Erasmus got it from someone else. He attributes the phrase to Italian scholar and teacher Franceso Filelfo whose work Epistaloe, was posthumously published prior to July 1496. We know this because a copy of the work is in the Harvard University collection with an ownership inscription of July 1496. How much before that was the book printed? We’re not sure.

There isn’t much evidence to show where Franceso would have pulled it from, though one likely candidate is a literal breaking of ice. 

According to a research paper by Adriaan M. J. de Kraker called Ice and water. The removal of ice on waterways in the Low Countries, 1330–1800, published 2017 in the journal Water History, the oldest recorded removal of ice comes from Bruges, in modern day Belgium. 


In the town account of 1333/34 there are records, from 25 December 1333 (n.s. 2 January 1334) onwards, showing ice was removed at the sluice of Damme and some other places

End Quote 

A sluice is a water channel with a gate used to control water flow and level.

It’s an easy jaunt, though not necessarily a provable one, that we went from the 1300s and breaking up ice in waterways to encourage trade, to the late 1400s in opening a figurative way for others by doing something new in the face of resistance. But these uses were in Latin. To get to the first times we see the phrases in English we need to turn to a familiar figure.

We’ll start with the first attestation of the phrase in English from the Oxford English Dictionary, which is credited to John Fisher sometime between 1553 and 1577. Since Fisher was executed in 1535, I’m assuming the papers came into someone’s possession later and those are the dates the OED is using. 

From the 1921 work “Life of Fisher” by Richard Hall, Fisher is quoted as writing…


fo this reuerend father tafted plentifully therof, whom yt chaunced in the verie begiuing to be one of the firft that brake the yfe, and to open and fhewe the inconvenience that followed therby,

End Quote

I meane here of the Divorce between kinge Henrye and queen Katherine his wife : the verie Spring from which fo many lamentable & miferable tragedies have fpronge, to the vtter mine and defolac/on of 2 this noble Realme of England

That inconvenience, he goes on to say, is the tragedy of the divorce of King Henry and Queen Katherine. Which, interestingly enough, was a catalyst to the formation of the Church of England, in part because the Roman Catholic Church did not allow for divorce. As I mentioned before, Fisher was executed by Henry VIII for not recognizing King Henry as the supreme leader of the Church of England. Fisher was later canonized as a Saint on May 19, 1935.  

Next we’ll move to the famous, or infamous, William Shakespeare, who used the English translation of the phrase in Taming of the Shrew, which was written some time between 1590 and 1592.



If it be so, sir, | that you are the man

Must stead us all and | me amongst the rest,

And if you break the | ice and do this feat,

Achieve the elder | set the younger free

For our access whose hap | shall be to have her

Will not so graceless | be to be ingrate.

End Quote

Let’s move along to 1602 in Thomas Heywood’s play A Pleasant conceited Comedie, Wherein is shewed how a man may chuse a good Wife from a bad wherein Mrs. Arthur is trying to push through the normal pleasantries quickly as she is having quite the tough day and wants the others to begin talking about anything else. 


It is my duty to begin, I know, and I will break this ice of courtesy. You are welcome home, sir.

End Quote 

In this case the folks weren’t strangers, but it was a formal relationship so some custom was expected. And we still see that today sometimes, where the group may know each other but the training or meeting is trying to set a different tone than the usual one. 

This next one uses the form of break the ice meaning to push through to understanding, through resistance, with diplomats who are not sharing their thoughts on a subject. This one is out of Derbyshire, England from the Derby Mercury, 2 January 1734.


In the mean time ‘tis said, that Mr. Walpole, with the Deputies of their High Mightinesses who compose their Committee for Foriegn Affairs, are almost every day in conference with the Imperial and French Ambassadors, to insinuate general hints in relation to the plan proposed, in order more and more to break the ice, and to worm out what their principals are mostly set upon.

End Quote 

It’s always great when we can find a dictionary that can help us understand what a word or phrase has meant in a variety of different timeframes. And thanks to Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language Volume 2 published in 1773, we are able to see this phrase continuing its transition.


End Quote

It wasn’t until the 1800s that we began to see “ice-breaker” regularly used alongside “break the ice”. Like in this 1825 work by Theodore Edward Hook called Sayings and Doings. Or, Sketches from Life. Second Series. Volume 1.


End Quote

We can usually tell when something is super ingrained in a society we see it in advertisements. And here’s an example from 1938 out of the Evening Star, Washington, DC in a full page ad for The Gunther Hostess Book. Part of the ad is a 14 question quiz for housewives to take. I’ll just read a couple. 

If you want to see the rest of the question, you can check them out in the show notes which are always available, for free, on our website,

Here’s an interesting one I found from the Evesham Standard and West Midland Observer dated 30 December 1939. The part that stands out is the use of “ice breaker” not as a game or activity, but describing a person as an ice breaker.


It’s good to be an icebreaker, especially in wartime when we all want all the cheer and companionship we can get. But ice breakers, like poets - who very rarely are anything all the same kind - are born not made. To become an ice breaker you must be born with the rudiments of the gift. 

End Quote

I’m not sure I agree that you have to be born with it. I know many people who have been taught to be an outgoing team builder in the right circumstance, though I admit those characteristics seem to come easier to some than others. 

One more, this one from 1950. I found it in the Evening Star out of Washington DC in a column called “Everybody’s Etiquette”. This one was called Traveling Alone and was by Richard Joseph, author of Your Trip Abroad. Remember, they didn’t have the internet to market their books, so newspapers were a good way to spread the word. 

But back to the question:

Dear Mr. Joseph: Do you think a person taking a vacation alone can have a good time?

He gives some specific tips. 


End Quote

The first one seems like great advice for life in general. First impressions are tricky and you don’t have to put too much stock in them if you don’t want to.

For the second, we’d probably send a message on Facebook to make that icebreaking introduction rather than a letter. But the point remains the same, even if the process is a bit different. 

These were just the first two tips he offered. We’ll explore the full article and all 9 tips after the show, which you can get in the Behind the Scenes video on Patreon. And speaking of Patreon…

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon.

You can help support this educational artform and get awesome perks along the way! Tiers start at $3 a month, which get you our polls and community-only discussions, early access to the podcast, and the behind the scenes video for each episode so you can watch along as we make the show. 

At $10 you’ll also get original digital artwork from Shauna once a month featuring exclusive art about an idiom or other turn of phrase. At $15, you’ll also get personal on-air recognition like Pat Rowe does every episode. And of course huge thanks goes to the top spot among our Patrons, our Dean of Learning, Mary Halsig-Lopez. Thank you so much to Mary and all of our patrons. 

If you want to help create Bunny Trails week after week, whatever your budget, we are bunnytrailspod on Patreon. 


Modern Uses

We’ll start our modern uses in 1968 when Schaper Toys released a game called “Don’t Break the Ice”, in which two or more players vied to essentially “not lose”. In 1986, the game was sold to Milton Bradley, a subsidiary of Hasboro, where it was promptly purchased by the Pugh family and became a favorite of mine. The game featured a red humanoid figure, called Ice Man, sitting in the middle of a 6 x 6 grid of plastic cubes that resembled ice. The cubes were wedged into a tight frame and each player took turns knocking an ice cube out of the frame. Eventually, physics would take over and someone would “break the ice” to a point where the figure in the middle fell, thus losing the game. Technically, the last player to successfully knock out an ice cube won. But we always played it kind of like Jenga… if you knock it all down you lose and everyone else wins.

This game is still sold today, though most versions have a penguin instead of Ice Man. 

Another game to mention is the 1995 computer game Icebreaker. It’s a strategy/action game mostly about destroying isometric shapes. It met with critical acclaim, but it didn’t sell well due to a variety of failures by the company. But despite the name, ice only appears in a few levels and even then, can’t be broken by any means. The name was chosen because the company though the game would appeal equally to casual gamers and hardcore gamers alike, so it was a social icebreaker. 

That’s an interesting way to market through your name, but hey… who am I to argue. 

Next up I want to look at two songs, both called Break the Ice. They are different songs and completely different styles. 

The first is sung by John Farnham and is from the 1986 soundtrack for the movie Rad about a young man trying to win an intense BMX race.

The chorus goes:


Get ready to break the ice

Feels like time is standing still

Aiming right for your heart

Ready to take another spill

Only you can make it right

You can break the ice inside of me

End Quote 

The second is by Brittany Spears off the 2007 album Blackout where the chorus goes:


Let me break the ice

Allow me to get you right

Let you warm up to me

Baby I can make you feel

Hot, hot, hot, hot

End Quote 

It’s interesting that both of these songs are about breaking down barriers. Not so much about opening a way for many others, but for themselves and their desires. 

It’s a similar message for the song Icebreaker, which was Norway’s entry for Eurovision in 2016. It was written and performed by Agnete. This one is about opening the way to save a lover.


You go astray

Just like a Polaroid you fade away

I’ll be your partner

And liberate you from your prison

Baby, yes, I hear your mayday


I’ll be your icebreaker

When you’re stuck in frozen water, frozen water


When you’re stuck in frozen water, frozen water

End Quote 

Jumping into Twitter,

I found an account called Break the Ice that is all about facts, jokes, and pick-up lines to spark any conversation. 

Here’s two I liked…

Sadly, it looks like they stopped Tweeting in 2019.

Here’s one from Kira Rudik, being used in a way to signify potentially opening a way for others to take a similar action. It’s from March 14, 2022.

Heavy subject, but great example of the phrase. Here’s a lighter subject March 31, 2022.

Wrap up...

This one was fun to explore. Since I’m not fluent in any other languages, I usually don’t delve too deep into the phrase before it entered English. But since the Oxford English Dictionary gave me great starting points, I was able to find my way around the Latin to give a little back-story before it came to English in the 1500s. And there is something that makes me feel better knowing that even before social media and before cell phones and before televisions and before radios there were still people trying to find ways to make talking to other humans a little easier. So if you struggle with talking to others, you are not alone. Some of history's finest names used icebreakers to start the conversations.



That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website


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Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember, 


Words belong to their users. 

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