Note: The origins for many sayings and phrases are not clear. In the cases where a phrase's origin is unknown, I'll list a few plausible theories about how it may have come about. Or, if I don't do that, then I'll usually try to include the earliest known quote of an expression being used in writing. These quotes tend to come from old books, newspapers, poems, or plays, and they can give an idea as to how far back in history a saying goes. So, for instance, if I quote a poem from 1680 because it uses a certain saying, then obviously the saying must be at least that old, you see?
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KnowYourPhrase.com - Sayings and Phrases - Meanings and Origins
Breaking down a social stiffness to make things more comfortable.
This phrase is sometimes used when the cold social awkwardness is broken between two people who are meeting for the first time.
Some might say that this phrase comes from, or at least was made popular, by steam-powered icebreaker ships that were designed in the 1800s for sailing in polar regions of the world. As the name suggests, these ships were designed to move and navigate through ice-covered waters, which can be quite challenging. Nevertheless, using the ship's strengthened hull and powerful engine, these vessels can break the ice apart into smaller pieces, allowing the ship to pass through without too much difficulty.
However, by the looks of it, this phrase actually precedes the creation of the icebreaker ships, because it goes back to at least the 17th century. This expression was written in a poem by Samuel Butler in 1678, and there's a line from the poem that reads:
"To give himself a first audience, After he had a while look'd wise, At last broken silence, and the ice."
* Paul had to give a speech in front of a large crowd later that day, but he was feeling very anxious. In order to break the ice with them, he planned to start his speech with some humor.
* I felt nervous after my brother Carl told me that a few of his friends were coming over to visit. I have never met these people before, but the ice was broken soon after they arrived.