Idiom: Break the iceOED definition: Do or say something to relieve tension or get conversation going in a strained situation or when strangers meet.Example: He always tells interesting stories to break to ice at parties
Blog in English Method To My Madness
The modern-day meaning of this idiom is somewhat different from the original, which was to break off a conflict or commence a friendship. This original meaning dates back to a time when there was very limited road transportation and ships were mainly used, especially for trade. During harsh winters, these large boats would get stuck because of the formation of ice around them. The receiving country would then send out small, specially designed ‘ice breaker’ boats, which would ‘break the ice’ and clear a path so that the trade ships could enter the port. Sending out these small boats was a gesture of friendship and understanding between two nations.
As the use of this idiom spread, it took on a broader meaning of ‘creating a path for others to follow’. This usage can be seen by Sir Thomas North in 1579 in a translation of Plutarch’s ‘Lives of the noble Grecians and Romanes’.
It wasn’t until the end of the 17th century that this phrase took on its current meaning, as seen in Samuel Butler’s ‘Hudibras’ in 1678. Many examples of this idiom can be seen throughout history, including Mark Twain’s use of it in ‘Life on Mississippi’ in 1883.