What Does “Break The Ice” Mean? Where Does It Come From?

At least once in our lives, it’s pretty common to be involved in an awkward situation, where chatting can become rigid or absent, especially with people who have not met before.

Break the ice refers to doing or saying something at a gathering, reunion, or party to make people feel more comfortable and relax, most commonly in new situations. It reduces tension, shyness, and anxiety and creates a friendly environment.

Origin Of Expression

First, let’s divide it into parts to define each and see if it makes sense:

Break: Divide into pieces as a consequence of a shock, strain, or blow.

Ice: It’s the solid state of water due to cold temperature.

Now that we have that clear, we can conclude that breaking the ice means separating into pieces cold solid frozen water.

We have the definition of the words, now let’s see the origin of the phrase:

Well, there are several theories about this phrase and its origins. Some think it refers to icebreaker ships back in the 1800s. Those ships were steam-powered machines and were powerful enough to go through the ice and break it into small pieces to pass. They made it easier for people to sail in the arctic parts of the world back then. 

As much as I like to think about those ships and their relation to the phrase “breaking the ice,” I regret to inform you that it is not the origin. How do I know that for sure, you ask? Well, because the phrase appeared way before in a poem from a gentleman called Samuel Butler in the 1600s, almost two hundred years earlier. (isn’t it great when poetry saves the day?).

We know now when the phrase was first used with the actual meaning we use today. But there is another piece of evidence that goes further back in time. It was documented in the 1500s in a translation of “Plutarch’s Lives of the noble Grecians and Romanes” by Sir Thomas North. Let me show you each of their use in their respective dates:

1500s Sir Thomas North’s Plutarch’s Lives of the noble Greciathe ns and Romanes: To be the first to break the Ice of the Enterprize.

1600s Samuel Butler’s Hudibras: The Oratour – At last broke Silence and the ice.

bartenderbreakingicewithpick

Definitions Of The Phrase

  • To say or do something that causes people to feel more comfortable, especially at the beginning of a meeting, party or reunion.
  • To minimize tension at the start of a party or gathering.
  • To get people more carefree, who have not faced each other before
  • To begin doing something to get people to feel relaxed in a new situation or gathering.
  • An attempt to create a pleasant environment in a new and unfamiliar circumstance.

An icebreaker can be many things, like a game, exercise, or a person. It does not have to be a conversation or a joke only.

The only condition it needs to have is to interrupt the awkward silence among new meeting members.

How People Use The Expression

drawingbreakingice

No matter how you use it, “break the ice,” the core of it is the same: to start something where there wasn’t.

You can use the phrase to say that you began a conversation, started a movement of some topic, made people laugh, and got relaxed when they were tense or in silence, etc.

Examples Of The Expression In A Sentence

I have prepared a list of examples to have a clearer image and understatement of what I have explained before. 

Some of these examples are actual life experiences. So, in a way, I’m breaking the ice with you, so you trust me. 

  • The ball will have various activities to assist people in breaking the ice.
  • It is regularly easier to break the ice following a few drinks.
  • Everybody at the conference already knows each other. Let’s not have one of those boring activities to break the ice.
  • Sadly, his sexist anecdotes did very little to break the ice among the gathering guests.
  • What activity are you thinking of to help break the ice at the conference?
  • Initial vloggers broke the ice for addressing even the most private matters on video.
  • We passed around many matches with every person burning one and telling something immediately about ourselves before it fired out to break the ice.
  • Our teacher brought in a case with three snakes on the initial day of school—what a move to break the ice. Everyone yelled something that day. It was hilarious.

A Little Bit About Ice

What is with ice that has all its phrases for different situations? There are many phrases involving ice in English. Could it be that it is far more interesting than we think? I did some digging to find out why.

There are different states of matter. One of them is liquid. Yes, water. But when water changes its liquid state from liquid to solid, then it becomes ice.

Ice is not always transparent as water. It can be white or bluish. It depends if the air is trapped or impurities. 

It goes to several phases, eighteen to be exact, but the most common one is one water is cooled down below 32 °F (273.15 K, 0 °C).

As we know, ice on Earth plays a significant role in many activities such as skating, climbing, fishing, skiing, sled racing, ice hockey, and figure skating.

Other everyday uses include food preservation, cooling drinks, and reducing swelling by pressing it against an injury.

What Else Is Ice?

Since ice has a unique appearance, it is normal to name other things with similar visual characteristics—for instance, a very famous and dangerous illegal drug.

Ice (crystal meth) is a member of the amphetamine group of narcotics. It is highly addictive and is related to several health problems.

Ice is a drug with stimulant effects, which means it accelerates the brain messages. It is stronger than other methamphetamines and also purer.

This drug has a bitter taste and a strong smell. It looks exactly like ice, but it comes in tiny icy crystals or powder. The consumption can be by smoking, snorting, injection, or swallowing. 

Ice is another name for diamonds. Those beautiful, clear, and expensive rocks look like ice in many cases. 

The name is not entirely because of the way they look. It is also because of its capacity, more than any other gemstone, to transfer heat. 

Diamonds can pull heat away from any hot thing they touch. You can experiment with this by pressing one against your skin or lips– it will give you an icy feeling.

hammerhittingice

Conclusion

As you have seen, every definition related to the phrase refers to breaking something hard. Silence is very hard. When you are in a room full of people, and everybody is in their world, on their phones, social media, or the internet, and that rock-hard, breathtaking silence is invading the room, something must be done about it. And believe me, some of them will thank you for that. Not consciously, but they will.

Breaking the ice is an action that we will experiment with at least once in our lifetime unless we are shy or always in a negative mood. But do your best to try to break the ice as much as you can. If people don’t react, then don’t feel bad. Sometimes people are just as shy as you. It doesn’t mean they are evil. Break the ice with no shame with a remark about the weather, a compliment to another person, a question following a joke, or use your creativity.

Be careful with the jokes because what’s funny to a person may not be funny to others. Do that, and if no one follows, then no biggie. But if someone reacts with you, you will probably have a better time too and who knows, a new best friend for life.

Think about this recommendation and if it makes sense to you, then apply it.

By Shawn Manaher

Shawn Manaher is the founder and CEO of The Content Authority. He's one part content manager, one part writing ninja organizer, and two parts leader of top content creators. You don't even want to know what he calls pancakes.