Jargon Genesis: Break the Ice

Stand in a circle. One person hold a large, foam ball and say the word “pickle.” Immediately toss the ball to another person in the circle. Upon catching the ball, that person must say the first word that comes to his/her mind. Then toss the ball to another person in the circle and continue for the next 60 seconds.

Ah. Now that we’ve completed our ice-breaker activity, I can more comfortably begin this week’s post on the etymology of “break the ice.”

The origin of this phrase is perhaps obvious. At times, nautical travel has required ships to break ice in order to cross rivers and oceans. This is no different today than it was hundreds of years ago, though the technology has evolved somewhat. Today, a ship that breaks through the ice is known as an icebreaker, (clever name). Some icebreakers can plow through six feet of ice continuously, and there are larger icebreakers that can handle ten foot ice!

But I digress. In 1579, we find an early figurative use of “break the ice.” However, it was then used to mean forging a path for others to follow, not seeking to calm an environment or begin conversation. Sir Thomas North translated Plutarch's Lives of the noble Grecians and Romanes, where he wrote, "To be the first to break the Ice of the Enterprize."

In the second half of the 17th century, we start to see today’s more common figurative use of the phrase. For example, Samuel Butler wrote Hudibras in 1678, and included the phrase, “The Oratour - At last broke silence, and the Ice."

I find the mental image of an enormous ship, capable of plowing through thick ice, helpful in challenging social situations that require an ice-breaker. Perhaps it’s a corporate quarterly meeting or maybe a blind date. Either way, just take a deep breath, imagine you’re a huge, powerful ship, and plow through that ice!