Slate's Explainer: Runaway Brides and Cold Feet Slate contributor Daniel Engber sheds light on the term "cold feet." Recently, a soon-to-be bride disappeared days before her wedding in Georgia. She claimed she had been kidnapped -- but in fact, it was a case of cold feet.
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Slate's Explainer: Runaway Brides and Cold Feet

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Slate's Explainer: Runaway Brides and Cold Feet

Slate's Explainer: Runaway Brides and Cold Feet

Slate's Explainer: Runaway Brides and Cold Feet

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/4630502/4630503" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Slate contributor Daniel Engber sheds light on the term "cold feet." Recently, a soon-to-be bride disappeared days before her wedding in Georgia. She claimed she had been kidnapped — but in fact, it was a case of cold feet.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Now from a novel that predicts where our lives may be going to a story in the news that has inevitably been described as a movie script, the Georgia woman dubbed `the runaway bride.' Jennifer Wilbanks disappeared a few days before her wedding, then turned up last weekend in New Mexico. She first told police she'd been kidnapped, and then confessed to wedding jitters and cold feet. Well, wait a minute. Where does that phrase `cold feet' come from? Here is Slate's Daniel Engber with an Explainer.

DANIEL ENGBER (Slate): The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the earliest usage of cold feet in this sense to the writer and poet Stephen Crane. In the 1896 edition of "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets," Crane writes: `I knew this was the way it would be. They got cold feet.' That is they lost courage or enthusiasm. By the early 1900s, the phrase was being used on college campuses, and a few years later, the term `coldfooter' was applied to those who were afraid to fight in the Great War.

The wartime usage of `cold feet' has led some to claim that the phrase once referred to soldiers whose frostbitten toes prevented them from entering a battle, but it appeared long before the war in context that had nothing to do with the weather. The phrase comes up twice in a popular German novel by Fritz Reuter, published in 1862, and both times it involved jokes. In one case, the person losing his nerve, or getting cold feet, is a shoemaker. So English-speakers may have translated the German idiom word for word. Linguists call this a calque, or a loan translation. The English word `superman,' for example, is a direct translation from the German ubermensch. So the Germans who arrived in America in the latter half of the 19th century may have brought their cold feet with them.

On the other hand, the phrase may have a longer history. Ben Johnson uses a similar expression in the play "Volpone" from 1605. He referred to a Lombard proverb `Cold on my feet,' which means to have no money. At least in a gambling context, having no money could lead a card player to get cold feet and leave the game.

CHADWICK: That Explainer from Slate's Daniel Engber.

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CHADWICK: More just ahead on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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