First posted on Jan 12, 2015: As the mercury strains to inch above its frozen winter threshold, and we breathe steam from behind our mittened hands guarding scarf-garlanded faces, we reach for words, similes and metaphors to describe the frigid temperatures that govern our daily minds and deeds — as centuries of cold humans have done before us. Here are some of those gelid turns of phrase, both enduring and outmoded, that have issued from numb lips and frosty quills — some vulgar, many artful — in all their icy eloquence.
Update on Jan 17, 2016: On Friday morning, during an outside broadcast on a hill in the North York Moors, a popular BBC weather presenter used a “cold as” phrase that we wouldn’t normally expect to hear on the Beeb. Read the full story here, which includes Ms. Kirkwood’s idiosyncratic description of the temperature, and the BBC’s somewhat surprising determination at the conclusion of their investigation into her unscripted forecast: “We have discovered that on the North York Moors on Friday morning, it was indeed cold as f*ck.”
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“As cold as stone”: from Shakespeare’s Henry V:
So a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my
hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as
cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and
they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and
upward, and all was as cold as any stone.
Phrase Finder gives the whole speech, as well as another couple of “as cold as” similes that the Bard used in his works.
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“Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”: does this refer to the three wise monkeys from Japan, or to brass triangles that supported stacks of iron cannon-balls on sailing ships (that were commonly known as monkeys)? Phrase Finder explains all …
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“As cold as a witch’s tit in a brass bra” (or in its more intensified form: “colder than a witch’s tit“): There doesn’t seem to be a firm consensus about the date or origin of this other brassy phrase, but a discussion on Wordwizard points to two claims about the timing of its first utterances. First, the Shorter Dictionary of Catch Phrases by Fergusson from the work of Erik Partridge & Paul Beale suggests that it has been used in the USA since the 1930s or earlier, and occasionally in the UK. However, the Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang has it originating several decades later, in the 1960s. Why is a witch’s tit cold?
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“Cold as charity”: Alison Dunn, in her 2006 article “Cold as charity: poverty, equity and the charitable trust”, explains that “the origin of this phrase is uncertain. It was used by Theodore Hook in his novel Jack Brag (Paris: W Galignani & Co, 1837) ch 15, and is possibly an adaptation of biblical references to man’s charity becoming cold, see for example, Matthew ch 24, v 12. See further, The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948).”
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I found a few lovely ones on Linda Fluharty’s Colloquialisms page: “colder than a well-digger’s feet in Alaska” (or than a well-digger’s ass — take your pick), “colder than a fart in a dead eskimo”, and “colder than blue hell”, all of which she believes originated in the language of the early American pioneers.
“Cold as blixen” and “cold as blue fujin” are just two examples given by mental_floss, by way of the editors of the Dictionary of American Regional English, of some especially obscure cold similes and phrases.
And if you’re looking for more literary icy similes, here’s a compendium published on Bartlebys, which includes Thomas Hood’s poetic “cold, just like a summer grate”, Shakespeare’s “cold as a dead man’s nose”, and Richard Lovelace’s “cold as the breath of winds that blow/To silver shot descending snow.”