Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Episode 219: Cold Feet


 Welcome to our 7th season of Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast! This week Shauna and Dan explore the phrase cold feet. Shauna gets cold feet on the subject of corns while Dan finally learns what corns even are. Bonus: The great onion ring vs fry debate.

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 219: Cold Feet
Record Date: January 1, 2024
Air Date: January 3, 2024


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

I’m Dan Pugh

And I’m Shauna Harrison

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 gotten to the night before a big moment in your life or perhaps even moments before you were supposed to do something huge… and realized you weren’t sure you wanted to do the thing at all? Maybe you even have the urge to run away? This feeling is sometimes called having cold feet.  


Cold feet is an expression that refers to someone getting nervous just before making a commitment. The commitment this term is commonly applied to is marriage. Someone might say,

My friend is supposed to get married tomorrow but she’s freaking out. I don’t think she really wants to cancel the wedding. She just has cold feet.

This is the way I generally think of the phrase. However, it is often used to apply to broader life experiences and choices. Some situations in which a person might get cold feet include other relationship milestones like kissing or other physical activities… and then there are non-relationship situations such as getting ready to talk to one’s boss about quitting or asking for a raise or more nefarious decisions such as preparing to commit a crime.

Here is the definition according to Oxford English Dictionary,
 In colloquial (originally U.S.) phrase to get (or have) cold feet, to become cowardly or discouraged; hence = fear, ‘funk’, cowardice;
End quote

In some cases, cold feet is used to describe a nervousness that is justified or hints at a reason to look further into a decision one is making. But in many cases, it is merely used as a way to express that a person is second-guessing the commitment they are about to make.

Before we get to the history and usage, we’re going to cover a couple of other types of cold feet.  

The first is one I had not heard before… it comes from the world of plants and plant care. The term cold feet had another usage in its early appearance. This particular definition comes from the revised edition of 1909 of the Webster's New international dictionary of the English language, based on the International dictionary of 1890.

Cold feet,..the condition of plants due to excessive watering without proper drainage.
End quote

The idiomatic version of Cold Feet didn’t come from horticulture but instead from the human physical condition of actually having uncomfortably chilly lower extremetries. Perhaps not a surprise, there are dozens - possibly hundreds - of sources sharing the solution for cold feet in the 1800s. But what is this condition? We are going to get the answer from a respected medical source of today, Cleveland Clinic. They share,

Cold feet happen when your feet are at a lower temperature than the rest of your body. Cold feet are a normal occurrence, especially if you live in cooler climates. Cold feet can be a sign of poor circulation. Wearing warm socks helps treat cold feet, as well as diagnosing and treating the underlying cause of your cold feet.
End quote

They go on to say,
There are a lot of reasons why your feet could be cold, ranging from cold climates to a sign of a serious medical condition. The most common cause of cold feet is poor blood flow in your legs and feet. If you experience frequent cold feet, reach out to your healthcare provider for an examination.
End quote

So, the main medical causes for cold feet that won’t go away with just those warm socks and/or moving to a warmer space include autoimmune diseases, circulation problems, nervous system and hormonal complications.

Now, the medical gurus of the 1800s were decently knowledgeable about cold feet. They discussed the nervous system and the fact that some people merely will not be able to get their extremities warmed. However, they didn’t exactly get everything correct. We’ll discuss some of the outdated ideas and antique medical recommendations in the bonus which is available to all of our patrons by visiting BunnyTrailsPod on Patreon.

Here is the earliest item I was able to find that uses cold feet in the idiomatic form.

There may be far earlier usages of this phrase in a figurative sense and likely there are many more throughout the 1800s… however, with the number of medical journals and tips and tricks, it is like searching or the proverbial needle in the haystack. And sometimes, it’s unclear what the intended meaning was, such as in the following item.

This excerpt is from the Contemporary Review out of London from 1894. It is discussing marriage and mentions cold feet but it is difficult to determine whether it is referring to the colloquial phrase or merely chilly extremities. But here is the excerpt.

There is, however, a large and increasing class of legislation upon this subject that seems to proceed upon the dogma that individual happiness is the true goal of marriage whose handmaiden is divorce. From a compilation before me I take at random as grounds for divorce-ungovernable temper, force or fraud, bad treatment, vicious conduct, incompatibility, improper conduct, gross behaviour, union with a religious sect prohibiting marriage, and finally, the omnibus cause, any other ground that may seem to require a divorce." Under the existing theory of plenary legislative jurisdiction proof of any of these grounds results in annulling the so-called contract, and the same result would, upon theory, follow if "excessive corpulence" or "cold feet" were added to the list.
End quote

Next up is an interesting story found in The San Francisco call. [volume], August 12, 1900 out of San Francisco, California.

There was once a poor widow who had an only son. His name, It is hardly necessary to say, was Jack. Of course, he left home to seek his fortune and met a fairy on the road. The fairy took a fancy to Jack and gave him a diamond ring - paste diamonds, so that nobody would steal it - and told him, when in trouble, to press the ring and she would do the rest.

Jack, in the pursuit of fortune, got in trouble in a poker game in Seattle - ran up against four of a kind and similar dif-ficulties - so he pressed the ring. The fairy appeared, remained invisible to the other players, and told him to play six more pots and get cold feet. The other players strongly objected to cold feet at that stage of the game, and it required all the fairy's magic art to get Jack out alive, but she did it, and he left the place with money to burn.
End quote

Our next item comes from the story, Extricating Obadiah by Joseph Crosby Lincoln published in 1917.
"Sound as if you was runnin' with your cut - out open, Obe," he said. "Let me sing the rest of the tune for you. You couldn't get along on what you had-not with all creation signed to sail with you so when Balaam told you about this Hummin' Bird - this Ostrich, I mean you thought you saw a chance to make a lot more. Then after you'd bought it you got cold feet, got scared you'd done the wrong thing, and wrote to me to come and tell you you hadn't. Then, after I had come, you got cold feet again, got scared to tell me for fear I'd tell you that you'd made a fool of yourself. That's about it, ain't it?"
End quote

Next in the line-up is a poem that comes to us from The Oakes times December 14, 1922 out of Oakes, North Dakota.

Cold Feet
This life we live is irksome, no matter where we be; the road is lined with boulders, an' breakers crown the sea. But we mustn't get discouraged an’ declare that life’s a cheat, for the prospecks ain’t so cheerin’ when a feller gets cold feet.
The man that proves a winner is the man that trims his sails, and steers his craft unerrin' amid the storms or gales--the hard knocks don't dismay him, which he squares his chin to meet, and his symptoms don't betray him-he never gets cold feet!
There ain't no road to glory but what’s beset with thorn’s and it’s purty hard to travel if you're pestered some with corns. So, to make yer failure certain, wear yer pants out on the seat - it's a sign that allers tells me that a feller's got cold feet.
I like to greet the feller that can laugh at clouds an' cares - that squares hisself in trouble, with his fists as well as prayers.
One that earns a benediction that is mighty soft and sweet. He blessed the world he lived in, and he never got cold feet!
End quote

There is a clever turn of phrase in the section title Spectator Speculates from the Roanoke Rapids herald out of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, April 13, 1933.

We believed the doctors without a question when they told us that cold feet were due to poor nerve supply and circulation, but it took a bank holiday to convince us that poor circulation was due to cold feet.
End quote

Let’s move to our modern uses, right after we say thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You
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Modern Uses

Cold Feet is a song by Tracy Chapman. I always really enjoyed Chapman’s rich voice. This is from the 1995 album New Beginning. This song is somewhat emotional… it discusses various ways of experiencing cold feet. Here are a few of the lyrics.
There was a little boy once upon a time
Who in spite of his young age
And small size knew his mind
For every copper penny
And clover he would find
Make a wish for better days
The end of hard times
For no more cold feet
Cold cold cold cold feet
End quote

And here is the bit that uses the colloquial term,
​​But some guys he knew
From high school days
Said they had a plan
To get rich real quick
And they could count him in
If he don't have cold feet
End quote

Cold Feet: Time To Call Off The Wedding, Or Chill? is an article and episode from NPR, July 29, 2010, Heard on Talk of the Nation. Here is the introduction to the article.

For some brides and grooms-to-be, even a heat wave in the thick of wedding season isn't enough to ward off cold feet.

Sometimes the pressure or expense of a pending wedding can cloud judgment about whether to call it off.

Syndicated advice columnist Amy Dickinson talks about how to handle degrees of cold -- and cool -- feet.
End quote

Cold Feet by Amy FitzHenry was released in 2015. Here is an overview from the publisher:

Pre-wedding jitters turn into serious doubts in this fresh and funny debut about tying the knot and untethering from the past...

Everyone's expecting her to walk down the aisle.
But something is telling her to run.

Emma Moon's mother thinks it's acceptable to miss her only daughter's wedding rehearsal dinner for a work obligation. Her father left when she was six months old. Emma hasn't exactly been raised to be a happily-ever-after kind of girl.

So when her anxieties get out of hand, Emma and her best friend, Liv, decide to take a road trip to San Francisco, find her long-lost father, and put her family issues to rest.

But her quest for the truth stirs up events and emotions she didn't expect. The urge to run away may just be a part of Emma's genetic makeup, because she's growing more and more tempted to do just that...
End quote

Cold Feet is a 2018 comedy movie produced in Europe. Here is the storyline as shared on IMDb.
Denis has no job or sense of responsibility; Charlotte is on her way to be a police woman and is indeed aware of her obligations and duties. Two young adults from two completely different worlds clash in old Raimund Groenert's house, each with their own intentions. Charlotte takes care of her grandfather Raimund, who needs a wheelchair due to a recent accident. Denis breaks into the property with an eye on valuable possessions, impersonating a nurse. None of them wants to spend much time there until a giant snow storm prevents them from leaving.
End quote

Another song using our phrase as its title was released in 2020 by Loud Luxury. This is a Canadian dance/electronic group. Cold Feet is a song that seems to be about a young woman’s possible future husband leaving… but the music video shows her also leaving. I think maybe it’s her parents who are kind of awful in the video but I couldn’t quite tell. I guess I’m old now. The lyrics begin,
The city sleeps, but I'm awake
You left without saying anything
Said "I do," I guess you don't
You were never ready
Dancing tipsy in the street
We were living like a movie scene
Then you go and dropped the diamond ring
Said it got too heavy

Cold, cold feet
They're walking out on me
Hide nor seek
There's a haunting melody
Singing oh, oh, oh
Where're you gonna go
Cold, cold, cold feet
End quote

Cold Feet is an artwork series created in 2023 by Marcus Jake from the United Kingdom. Here is a little of what the artist shared in the description.

This is a Mixed Media piece, incorporating painting, photography, resin, metallic leaf, metallic and textural mediums.

‘Cold Feet’ is part of a large series of work I have been doing over the last few years and continue to do.

I have a set a pretty strong intention to create artwork that inspires people to connect with that part of themselves that makes them feel truly alive and magnetically present. ‘Cold Feet’, celebrates bravery and courage, the path we walk to get to where we are. It is work that portrays our beautiful individuality, deep connected humanity and energetic bond to life, our human connection, our connection to all other life and our deep interconnectivity to the planet we live on.

I hope you enjoy viewing this piece as much as I have making it.
End quote

The podcast titled Six Cold Feet was the winner of the Silver award for Best Fiction at the 2020 Australian Podcast Awards.

Six Cold Feet is a fiction anthology podcast about music, mystery, and the places we escape to when the real world disappoints us. Season 1 told the story of River, who is looking for his recently disappeared sister. Season 2 follows the story of Athena, who is hired to write a biography of her hero; the mercurial singer-songwriter Juliet Knives. She quickly discovers that Knives has been keeping secrets for many years, and that she might be finally ready to confess…

Starting with season 2, the show also features an accompanying soundtrack showcasing the music of the fictional musician featured in each season.
End quote

Wrap up:
I imagine most people experience cold feet from time to time. It is an uncomfortable feeling… mostly perhaps fitting into the categories of anxiety and apprehension. Very unpleasant. When the really big decisions come up, it can be important to listen to our cold feet. Did you have concerns before this moment? Had you solidly decided and now you’re just experiencing momentary fear? Or did something new occur? Perhaps you’ve learned some new information that truly changes the circumstances. Cold feet might not always be merely cowardice but at times, it is our instincts telling us to be cautious. It’s difficult to balance but hopefully if you are faced with such a situation… trust yourself and the decision you’ve already made… but also trust those instincts and listen to yourself when it means your entire life will be impacted by whatever you do choose. Yeah, that’s not an answer. That’s why this phrase is probably going to stick around for a while longer.

That’s about all 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 Patreon, or comment on our website


It’s patron poll time!

Recently we posed this question to our Patrons:

Onion Rings or French Fries?


JGP said:
Bunny Trails asking the hard questions here! This is an impossible poll, how can one choose between fries and onion rings?
End Quote

There is no winner… or no loser? This one was a perfect 50-50 tie!

I’m with you JGP… I think both is the correct answer here! I have all these food allergies which means I have to make my own but in the magical world where I can eat anything I want whenever I want… it’s onion rings with ketchup and french fries… preferably sweet potato fries… with bbq sauce… or maybe with a zesty sriracha mayo. Oh, and pickles… what about the pickles?

Mary shared,
I actually love french fries but onion rings aren’t always readily available. Sometimes they’re ridiculously more expensive than french fries and I just can’t bring myself to pay the extra amount because it doesn’t seem to me that onions are more expensive than potatoes. That means I missing out on onion rings because I’m either stubborn or opinionated. You decide. One restaurant had the wisdom to offer half and half so one did not have to choose. I hope they still exist. Now I have to remember who they are so I can go there again.
End Quote

We also asked what dipping sauce you preferred with the onion rings or fries.

Jan said:
Ketchup if I'm out and about. Spicy ketchup if I'm home. Whataburger makes a good one but I usually just mix in some Tabasco sauce myself.
End Quote

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


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

Words belong to their users.

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