meaning and origin of the phrase ‘cold comfort’

The expression cold comfort means inadequate consolation for a misfortune.

The adjective cold has long been used to mean felt as cold by the receiver, chilling, damping, discouraging. For example, the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1342-1400) wrote, in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale:

     (interlinear translation – Harvard College)
Wommennes conseils been ful ofte colde;
     Women’s counsels are very often fatal;
Wommannes conseil broghte us first to wo
     Woman’s counsel brought us first to woe
And made Adam fro Paradys to go,
     And made Adam to go from Paradise,
Ther as he was ful myrie and wel at ese.
     Where he was very merry and well at ease.

The adjective cold in this sense has especially been used in connection with nouns such as counselnews and rede (an obsolete word meaning a piece of advice). The collocation cold comfort is found in Patience, a late-14th-century anonymous poem based on the Book of Jonah:

Lorde, colde watz his cumfort, & his care huge,
For he knew vche a cace & kark Þat hym lymped.
Lord! cold was his comfort, and huge his care,
For he knew each circumstance and charge that befell him.

In The Psalmes of Dauid and others. With M. Iohn Caluins Commentaries (1571), the English translator Arthur Golding (1536-1606) also used cold comfort:

We receiue but cold comfort of whatsoeuer the scripture speaketh concerning Gods power and iustice, onlesse euery of vs apply the same to himselfe according as need shal require.

In The Taming of the Shrew (around 1591), the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) makes Grumio, Petruchio’s manservant, pun on cold comfort when he says to Curtis, another servant:

(Folio 1, 1623)
                                        Wilt thou make a fire,
or shall I complaine on thee to our mistris, whose hand
(she being now at hand) thou shalt soone feele, to thy
cold comfort, for being slow in thy hot office.

The modern use of cold comfort has been influenced by Cold Comfort Farm (1932), the title of a parody of contemporary novels about rural life, by the English author Stella Gibbons (1902-89). On 8th September 2009, Bill Peschel, “Author, Editor, Anthologist, and Owner of Peschel Press, the Publisher of Histories Behind the Mysteries”, published Stella Gibbons Kills A Genre (1932):

Few writers get credit for starting a genre — like Poe with the detective story, or Wells or Verne for science-fiction — but on this date in 1932, Stella Gibbons killed one.
Four years before, as a young woman working at a London newspaper, Gibbons was assigned the task of summarizing the plot of a novel that was being published in installments. Mary Webb’s “The Golden Web” was a novel of the “Loam and Lovechild” school of fiction, which portrayed nature as rough and wild, men and women ruled by their passions, sexual and otherwise, and rural families as combative as any found in the Old Testament. This popular novel was part of a literary genre that ran back to Thomas Hardy and can even include, on a more rarified level, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”
Gibbons thought it dreadful stuff, so she decided to skewer it with her own story, about a smart young woman who moves in with her neurotic rural relatives.
“Cold Comfort Farm” is a young writer’s novel, full of energy and wit, written to entertain Gibbons and her friends and caring not a whit for what anyone else thinks. The encounter between the educated Flora Poste and her cousins in the Starkadder family gave her free rein to deflate not only rural virtues and vices, but the fads and fancies of the 1930s as well: Freudianism, Hollywood, even Lawrence’s philosophy that the urging of the blood is wiser than that of the intellect. […] For the reviewers’ convenience, she designated noteworthy examples of her best prose with one, two or three stars as “perfected by the late Herr Baedeker.”
A typical three-star passage ran like this:
     “ * * * The man’s big body, etched menacingly against the bleak light that stabbed in from the low windows, did not move. His thoughts swirled like a beck in spate behind the sodden grey furrows of his face. A woman . . . Blast! Blast! Come to wrest away from him the land whose love fermented in his veins, like slow yeast. She-woman. Young, soft-coloured, insolent. His gaze was suddenly edged by a fleshy taint. Break her. Break. Keep and hold and hold fast the land. The land, the iron furrows of frosted earth under the rain-lust, the fecund spears of rain, the swelling, slow burst of seed-sheaths, the slow smell of cows and cry of cows, the trampling bridge-path of the bull in his hour. All his, his . . .
     “‘Will you have some bread and butter?’ asked Flora, handing him a cup of tea. ‘Oh, never mind your boots. Adam can sweep the mud up afterwards. Do come in.’”

Interestingly, Cold Comfort Farm has been the name of several actual properties. For example, The Property Market in the Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Graphic of 3rd December 1932 had:

Cold Comfort Farm, Andoversford, with about 64 acres.

And the following is from the Royal Leamington Spa Courier and Warwickshire Standard of 20th April 1945

Stockman wanted, with wife willing to work in house Cottage provided.—Loveridge, Cold Comfort Farm, Alcester.

The Newcastle Journal (Northumberland) of 22nd June 1942 published this letter to the Editor:

Farmers’ Forms
Sir.—We have completed a set of forms for June 4 returns. On the day I posted mine another set came in, this time headed “1943 Cropping Plan.” There are three forms, all alike, A, B and C.
A and C have to be filled in and B is filled in as a guide to how to do this. At the end one has to sign one’s name, give postal address and the date. On form B it is signed C. Smithers, “Cold Comfort Farm,” Morpeth.
It is the address of this farm which has so intrigued me. It must be applicable to every farm in Northumberland to-day, for we are simply beset with such a multiplicity of forms that little comfort can be derived on any farm these days.
The address is also the more interesting as I am at this moment reading the book, “Cold Comfort Farm,” by Stella Gibbons.

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