colder than a witch’s tit

The phrase is a metaphor for extreme cold, just as “hotter than the hinges of hell” is a metaphor for high temperatures. Another version is “colder than a witch’s tit in a brass bra.”

Witches were once imagined as old hags with wrinkly skin and icy blood. So the phrase “colder than a witch’s tit” became common during very cold weather.

There’s some history behind this phrase. A witch’s tit (or witch’s teat, to use the older spelling) supposedly left a mark that witch hunters and courts would look for on the body of the person accused of witchcraft. The theory was that witches would suckle their familiars, and also sometimes the Devil, from this chilly body part. To find these marks, as well as insensitive spots on the skin called devil’s marks — caused by the Devil’s claws or teeth — the suspects were stripped, shaved, then examined for any blemishes, moles, or even scars that could be labeled as diabolical. To find marks invisible to the eye, the examiner would poke the victim inch by inch with a blunt needle (called a bodkin) until they found a spot that didn’t feel pain or bleed. Discovery of these marks or spots would be “proof” of the person’s dealings with the devil, and these would be shown in full court before the execution.

Of course, claiming that a woman was a witch gave officials the right to look for cold spots, and since women were thought of as inferior, they were also quite defenselss. If an official saw a girl that he fancied, accusing her of being a witch gave him and anyone else the right to fondle her at will. If she protested, then she was said to be guily, and was burned anyway. She didn’t have much of a choice — lechery, public humiliation, or death. Or all three.

The first found instance of “colder than a witch’s tit” is in Literary America vol. 2, issue 2 (1935):

“Where’s Millar?” I asked, knowing.

It was a cue for a duet. They must have rehearsed it. “Hung, Barr, hung. With that Chink belt you’re holding there. Dead for over a month. Colder than a witch’s tit.”

The next-oldest instance is in Jerome Weidman, I’ll Never Go There Any More (1941):

“It’s the summer. You have to expect heat in New York in the summer no matter where you are. But wait till the wintertime comes. It’ll be as cold as a witch’s tit.”

Google Books also finds a reference to the similar “dry as a witch’s tit” in an unidentified snippet in Tomorrow, vol. 10 (1950):

“My God-damn lighter’s gone dry as a witch’s tit,” the boy said, and Janos could hear the rasp of the lighter’s stone in his hand.

I’d never heard of this last version, but I guess we needed one fit to use in summer!

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