Break The Ice – Meaning & Origin


Break the ice is a common phrase that means to break down a social stiffness in order for things to be more comfortable.

This phrase is sometimes used when two people are meeting for the first time. In this context, there might be what is described as a cold social awkwardness between the two. However, once they start talking, they warm up to each other and therefore “break the ice” that was between them.

Example: My brother Carl has friends coming over soon and I’m nervous because I’ve never met them before. However, I have some ideas on how to break the ice once they arrive.

Synonyms: lighten the mood

Phrase - Break The Ice
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Certain ships have to break through the ice to get to their destination. Is this where the phrase comes from?

The Origin of “Break The Ice”

Some people may think that the phrase break the ice comes from steam-powered icebreaker ships that were designed in the 1800s. While traveling through ice-covered waters can be challenging, these ships were built to make navigation through the arctic regions of the world a bit easier.

As the name suggests, these ships are capable of traveling through ice-covered waters (see the picture above). Using the ship’s strengthened hull and powerful engine, these large vessels break the ice apart into smaller pieces, allowing the ship to pass right on through. In some sense, it’s like a knife slicing through cold butter.

So then, does the expression “break the ice” come from these types of ships? No, this is not the source of its origin because this phrase actually goes back to the 17th century, which means it precedes the creation of the icebreaker ships. For example, this expression makes an early appearance in a poem by Samuel Butler, 1678. One of the lines from the poem reads as follows:

“To give himself a first audience, After he had a while look’d wise, At last broken silence, and the ice.”

So that means this phrase is at least 340 years old.

Sentence Examples

  • The ice was broken soon after they introduced themselves and started talking.
  • Paul was moments away from giving a speech to a large crowd. To break the ice with them, he planned to start his speech with some humor.

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