“Let’s start by breaking the ice.”
What does it mean to break the ice? If this phrase is used in a kitchen, it may be taken quite literally. If a person struggles to chip away at the ice on his or her front sidewalk in midwinter, the expression may be accurate as well.
However, usually, ice breaking has little to do with actual frozen water, or ice, at all. Breaking the ice most often refers idiomatically to an altogether different sort of coldness.
What is the meaning of the popular phrase, “break the ice”?
Breaking the ice generally means creating an opening for social interaction between people who most likely do not yet know one another. When a person breaks the ice, he or she is initiating a conversation to become acquainted with someone.
For example, a man and a woman on a first date (especially a blind date) may seem to struggle for conversation until one of them finds a way to break the ice. Perhaps she will ask him about his favorite hobbies and find that she shares a similar interest. Or possibly, he might inquire about her pets and discover that he has the same breed of dog or cat at home. Maybe the two will be surprised to learn that they both adore the same appetizer, creating a conversation starter.
After breaking the ice, folks may find that they are able to talk about more than the weather – even icy weather.
Occasionally, breaking the ice may refer to a person’s taking the first step towards reconciliation with another individual, with whom a rift or tense relationship may have formed. Breaking the ice may sometimes occur accidentally, as when a person experiences an embarrassing predicament or when two people are thrown somewhat randomly into a significant shared experience.
After such events, folks who were strangers may find themselves immediate friends. The ice, as it were, has been broken.
Party hosts, birthday celebration organizers and meeting planners often schedule icebreakers at the beginnings of their events. Icebreakers do not require ice picks or ice chippers – just a couple of creative ideas. In such cases, icebreakers are usually thought-provoking questions, silly games or playful exercises that are intended to break the ice socially.
Breaking the ice, then, is something akin to warming up the crowd, breaking ground, making inroads or getting the ball rolling, so to speak.
Believe it or not, breaking the ice has nothing to do with figure skating, hockey, ice dancing or even ice fishing – although ice breakage may occur in any of these winter sports.
What is the origin of the popular phrase, “break the ice”?
The first citations of this idiomatic expression are uncertain.
However, in a literal sense, breaking the ice can be traced back to world explorers in the early 1600s. As voyagers charted their courses through the world’s coldest waters, they often sent stronger ships ahead to break up ice formations. These sturdy vessels, known as icebreakers, were built to withstand impacts with icebergs and hard icy masses.
The icebreaker ships would break the ice and create paths for others ships in these fleets to follow. (Icebreaking boats are still used today, particularly in polar regions.)
In time, the expression broadened in meaning. Breaking the ice came to connote friendly assistance that broke up embarrassment, hesitation and unfamiliarity, making way for socialization and camaraderie.