This is the time of year you can get to be like a cat when it comes to heading outside. You spend too much time inside where it’s warm but you’re feeling cooped up, so when you have a chance to step out, you hotfoot it… until you get out that door, and suddenly you have cold feet. Literally. You might even nope right back into the house.
It’s fun how we have this pair, isn’t it? And also how they only kind of go together? After all, people rarely if ever talk of having hot feet, and no one is going to say they coldfooted it back inside. Plus, hotfoot refers to haste, with a possible implication of eagerness, whereas cold feet refers not to slowness but to hesitation or outright refusal on the basis of pusillanimity. If they were bookends, a person inclined to tidiness would take one look and say “Can’t you make them match better?”
To which the answer could readily be “They weren’t made together.” Because they almost certainly weren’t, nor do we have any evidence that one was made on the basis of the other. They’re just like decorative items on the same theme that were bought in different places at different times – like the decorative leather-bound-book-styled cushion and decorative leather-bound-book-looking rolling cabinet that my wife and I have, or our lamp and bottle holder both styled after the Eiffel Tower but not in exactly the same way.
Which word is older? As it happens, the verb hotfoot and the verb phrase get cold feet are both first attested in print in English in the 1890s… but hotfoot the verb comes from hotfoot the adjective and adverb (as in “he was coming hotfoot from the village”), and hotfoot has been in English as adverb and adjective since the 1300s. Yes, it was much more eager to appear, though it was (may we say ironically) hesitant to be a verb.
And where did English get hotfoot from? French. Old French has chaut pas (modern French would make it chaud pas), meaning literally ‘hot step’ and figuratively ‘immediately’, and that’s where we seem to have gotten hotfoot by translation and adaptation.
OK, so where did we get cold feet from? That one’s a bit less forthcoming. The first known published use of it in the current sense is in Stephen Crane’s novel Maggie: Girl on the Streets, where someone says “They got cold feet” and the reader understands that the people referred to were overcome with reticence. It seems reasonable that the phrase was already current in colloquial use for it to be used that way in that book, and in the following decades its use spread – people who refused to fight in World War I were called cold-footers, for example. But where did the phrase come from?
There are idioms referring to cold feet in other languages. The most reasonable suspect is German kalte Füße bekommen, literally ‘get cold feet’, which refers particularly to gambling: if you are on a losing streak, you may get cold feet – perhaps because you’ve lost your shoes – and back out, and if you’re even just afraid of losing what you’ve won, you could also be said to have cold feet. And in 1878, an English translation of a German novel, Seed-Time and Harvest by Fritz Reuter, had a character saying “haven’t I as good a right to cold feet as you? Don’t you always get cold feet, at our club, when you have had good luck?” The sense of hesitancy to join in gambling could be applied more broadly, to such things as social engagements (up to and including engagements to be married). But I have no idea whether that novel was popular among the set of people who would make the turn of phrase popular, or whether the same idiom might have spread another way, say in actual casinos.
But there is an earlier appearance in English of an idiom about cold feet – it’s in Ben Jonson’s play Volpone, from 1605. He makes reference to a Lombard turn of phrase, which is avegh minga frecc I pee (Italian aver freddo ai piedi, ‘have cold in the feet’), but then, as now, it doesn’t mean ‘hesitant’; it means ‘broke’. As in you have holes in your shoes – or no shoes at all.
Which could, after all, dispose a person to hotfoot it to work, I suppose. But not to something that would cost them money. Which may be a pity – as we learn from Vimes Boot Theory, propounded by Terry Pratchett in Men at Arms:
The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money. Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles. But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet. This was the Captain Samuel Vimes “Boots” theory of socioeconomic unfairness.
Meaning, if we extrapolate from wet feet to cold ones, that the people who are best disposed to hotfoot it are not the ones most likely to get cold feet, and vice versa. And all the best occasions boot little if you have little boot – and cold conditions to boot.