‘T is the whole spirit brought to a quintessence;
And thus the chilliest aspects may concentre
A hidden nectar under a cold presence.
And such are many — though I only meant her
From whom I now deduce these moral lessons,
On which the Muse has always sought to enter.
And your cold people are beyond all price,
When once you have broken their confounded ice.
Who knew that a phrase as common as ‘breaking the ice’ had such literary origins? The first general use of this phrase is attributed to George Gordon, Lord Byron, in his epic, unfinished poem Don Juan. (Canto XIII, Stanza XXXVIII) The gist of this section of the poem concerns a woman and her husband who have received Don Juan at their English house party, and which Byron “sees this whole party as English ennui.” (Wikipedia)
So what does it mean in general usage? According to Fun-With-Words.com, it has the following meanings:
(1) to relax a tense or formal atmosphere or social situation; (2) to make a start on some endeavor.
This came into general use, in sense (1), in English through Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” (1823) in the lines:
And your cold people [the British] are beyond all price,
When once you’ve broken their confounded ice.The ice in question is metaphorically that on a river or lake in early spring. To break the ice would be to allow boats to pass, marking the beginning of the season’s activity after the winter freeze. In this way, this expression has been connected to the start of enterprise for about 400 years.
So the next time you meet a group of people you don’t know well, start the enterprise, break the ice, but don’t fall in the river! You might freeze to death!