Slight consolation or encouragement in the face of a reverse.
This dates back to the 14th century. E. E. Allit. includes the line, "Lorde! colde watz his cumfort."
It was used in early literature by several authors, notable Chaucer and Shakespeare, who used it several times; for example:
The Taming of the Shrew, 1596:
Am I but three inches? why, thy horn is a foot; and
so long am I at the least. But wilt thou make a
fire, or shall I complain on thee to our mistress,
whose hand, she being now at hand, thou shalt soon
feel, to thy cold comfort, for being slow in thy hot office?
King John, 1595:
Poison'd,--ill fare--dead, forsook, cast off:
And none of you will bid the winter come
To thrust his icy fingers in my maw,
Nor let my kingdom's rivers take their course
Through my burn'd bosom, nor entreat the north
To make his bleak winds kiss my parched lips
And comfort me with cold. I do not ask you much,
I beg cold comfort; and you are so strait
And so ingrateful, you deny me that.
Stella Gibbons adapted the term for her 1932 parody of the classic rural novels of Hardy and similar authors - Cold Comfort Farm.
See other phrases and sayings from Shakespeare.