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Cold as a wedge

Posted by Graham Cambray on February 22, 2009 at 22:35

In Reply to: Cold as a wedge posted by Dan on February 22, 2009 at 08:26:

: Looking for the origin or meaning of the phrase "Cold as a wedge".


The phrase is currently used for almost all the many meanings of the word "cold": e.g. chilly, unfeeling, unconscious, dead. The earliest usages seem to be the last two:
"He knocked her down as cold as a wedge, and had her cuts fixed up ......" from The Indian War of 1864, by Eugene Ware [Dead link removed - ed] and
"But, thank this rebellion ! these resolutions are now "cold as a wedge" - "dead as a mackerel." " from "Address of Hon. Joseph Segar, on the war" - [Dead link removed - ed]

The "dead" usage takes us to one of America's most famous writers, Mark Twain. In Tom Sawyer (Ch. 9) he has:
"Why, you two was scuffling, and he fetched you one with the headboard and you fell flat; and then up you come, all reeling and staggering like, and snatched the knife and jammed it into him, just as he fetched you another awful clip - and here you've laid, as dead as a wedge til now." Twain didn't invent the phrase, however. A letter from a serving Confederate soldier to his father (in 1863) had: "When a Yank would show himself someone would draw a bead on him and he would fall dead as a wedge." [Dead link removed - ed]

So, even if we assume that "dead as a wedge" came first, why a wedge? Well, in "Coming Through - Voices of a South Carolina Gullah Community" - from interviews collected in 1936 - we have this explanation:
"What's the deadest thing? 'Dead as a wedge.' ... If it has any life in it'll sho be dead. So many hard licks would knock it out!" [Dead link removed - ed] This refers to wedges used to split logs. It's the best explanation I've found - there may be better ones.

The earliest use of an "as a wedge" phrase appears to be independent of the two above. It is "tight as a wedge". In "Rambles in the Mammoth Cave, during the Year 1844" by Alexander Clark Bullitt we have: "Halt, ahead there! I am stuck as tight as a wedge in a log!" . And this sense seems to have survived too; in or about 1961, Robert Heinlein wrote (of one of his books): "... the story is now as tight as a wedge in a green stump ..." [Dead link removed - ed]

"Cold", then, originally in the (still extant) meaning of dead or unconscious, but now extended to other meanings. [The dog-eared dictionary on my desk has: "cold / n. ... 6 (a) dead. (b) colloq. unconscious. ..."] And "wedge" from the wedges used to split logs - 'cos anything hit that often and that hard couldn't be anything but dead.

You don't get a money-back guarantee with this explanation, it's just my best shot. (GC)