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Why Do We Say 'Cool Your Heels'?

"Cool your heels" seemed like it might have a weird or fascinating origin, but it turns out that it comes from the idea of literally cooling your feet.

By
Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read
Episode #769
feet cooling in water
The Quick And Dirty

"Cool your heels" comes from the way your feet cool down after you stop walking.

Last week, I was standing around impatiently waiting for my morning coffee to drip through its filter, and I must have looked annoyed because my husband asked what I was doing, and I said, “I’m just cooling my heels waiting for this coffee.” And then we both started wondering where that phrase came from. What does it mean to cool your heels?

We thought there’d probably be some weird or fascinating story, but it turns out it’s actually about literally cooling your feet. When you walk for a long time, your feet get hot, and when you stop to rest, your feet cool down.

Cool Your Heels

The Oxford English Dictionary puts the first use in the year 1576, and at that time, it could also refer to horses. You could cool your heels, cool your feet, or your horse could cool its hooves. 

For example, here’s a line from a 1611 translation of “The Illiad”: “The soldiers all sat down enrank'd, each by his arms and horse That then lay down and cool'd their hoofs.”

Today it means to wait around, especially if someone is making you wait or the waiting is annoying for some reason. For example, if you’re stuck for hours in a doctor’s waiting room, you could be said to be cooling your heels. So it probably didn’t take my coffee long enough to drip through the filter that it justified me calling it cooling my heels! It should really be some kind of significant or disturbing wait, like when I gave my thesis defense and then had to wait for what seemed like forever for the committee to deliberate and decide that I had passed.

Cool Your Jets

There’s also a newer phrase, “cool your jets,” that arose in the United States in the 1970s. It has a different meaning. If someone tells you to cool your jets, they’re telling you to calm down or get less excited, and often it means they think you’re overreacting. I’d take it as kind of dismissive or as a put down if someone told me to cool my jets. It’s also often used in an extremely informal or slangy way. Here’s a funny example from a book that seems to take a lighthearted approach to advice for salespeople.

“Keep your mouth closed during any legal wrangling. We all know you are blessed and wonderful, but you ain’t a lawyer, bucko, so cool your jets.”

A lot of the examples in the Corpus of Contemporary American English also have that feel to them: Cool your jets, kid. Cool your jets, hotshot. Cool your jets, dude. And so on.

I couldn’t find anything to confirm the origin of “cool your jets,” but I suspect it was a reference to jets on airplanes, which are loud and hard to ignore. The 1970s was a time when more people than ever were flying, but flying was also still exciting and new.

So “cool your jets” is a bit more metaphorical: we aren’t telling people to cool their literal jets. But cool your heels really was about feet. Sometimes phrases have weird origins, but sometimes they come from just what they mean. And in this case, it all started with letting your feet cool. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.