There are any number of events in life that call for a definitive decision or commitment. A marriage ceremony, a major real estate transaction, or a life-altering medical procedure, for example, leave very little room for hesitation or second thoughts past a certain point of no return. When a person does face a moment of crisis or loss of courage just before taking a significant personal risk, it is often said he or she is suffering from a case of cold feet.
Getting cold feet could simply be a case of nerves before committing to a positive event, or it could be the subconscious mind's way of backing out of the deal. Many people get nervous whenever the seriousness or the ramifications of an impending decision or commitment are fully realized. The idea of completely abandoning a bachelor's lifestyle, for instance, may cause a groom to hesitate about his upcoming wedding. The same holds true for a bride who has last minute reservations about making a lifetime commitment. This anxiety has led to some brides or grooms running away from the ceremony or canceling the wedding completely.
Other people may experience this reaction when negotiating a major real estate purchase or other financial dealing. The original plan to buy a new home may have made perfect sense at the time, but unexpected delays or expensive repairs can cause a potential buyer to develop cold feet and back out of the deal before closing. The idea of acquiring a "money pit" or assuming a barely affordable mortgage can cause many buyers to get hesitate before signing on the dotted line.
The history of the phrase getting cold feet is a bit convoluted. Many sources say it first appeared in Stephen Crane's 1894 work Maggie: A Child of the Streets. A character shows his admiration for a man who does not suffer from doubt whenever a tough decision must be made. Others say the phrase was popular in Germany during the 1860s, describing gamblers and others whose livelihoods depended on being supremely confident in their decisions.
Some sources even suggest the description as a metaphor for lost courage can be traced back to the writings of Ben Jonson, a contemporary of William Shakespeare. This particular reference appears to be more related to a sense of poverty, however, not a sudden loss of fortitude or courage. Literally having cold feet from a lack of proper footwear could indeed make a person more cautious or hesitant, however, so its possible both concepts contributed to the popularity of the phrase.