When any kind of joint project is imminent and seemingly a done deal, a participant pulling out is said to have gotten “cold feet.” While it’s used in the context of business deals, the cold feet idiom is most often applied to pending wedding nuptials. A bride or groom thinking twice about spending eternity with their would-be spouse develops cold extremities.
Where did the phrase come from?
One theory has it that “cold feet” came into use when soldiers who developed frostbite on their toes were subsequently unable to serve. The phrase was meant to be taken literally. While people who were reluctant to serve in World War II were said to be “cold-footers,” the origin of “cold feet” actually predates the war by decades—and possibly centuries.
In 1805, a newspaper column appeared in The Republican-Journal in Darlington, Wisconsin, and was attributed to The Washington Post. It described a poker game in which the author planned to exit once he developed a case of “cold feet,” or an unwillingness to continue losing money if things weren’t going his way:
"I hastily made up my mind to stay long enough to lose one hundred dollars or so, and then suddenly grow ill and extricate myself. It was a happy thought. 'Cold feet' would pull me out, if my losses became too towering."
While not necessarily the first published use of the phrase, it seems likely that “cold feet” was, for a time, synonymous with games of chance.
Later, author Fritz Reuter used the phrase in Seed Time and Harvest, a German-language novel published in 1862. In it, Reuter describes a card player and gambler who departs a game after developing a case of cold feet.
It’s hard to know what or who may have inspired the columnist and Reuter to use “cold feet” to describe a wary gambler, though there was precedent for it. In the 1605 play Volpone by Ben Jonson, the Lombard (an Italian dialect) proverb “cold on my feet” is used. In this context, it referred to someone with no money and presumably no resources for proper footwear. A gambler with dwindling cash may have gotten a case of cold feet, which eventually grew to describe anyone metaphorically walking away from the table.
Reuter’s novel was later published in English in 1870. In 1896, Artie: A Story of the Streets and Town by author George Ade contained the phrase. (“He’s one o’ them boys that never has cold feet and there’s nothin’ too good for a friend.”) So did a revised edition of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane released that same year. (“I knew this was the way it would be. They got cold feet.”)
How “cold feet” moved from general apprehension to wedding woes is less clear. Perhaps it’s because those with cold feet consider love to be as much of a gamble as poker.