Take a Word.... CUT: Etymology, Idioms & Phrases; Poems & the Story of the Cutty Sark
A Child Plays with Letters & Words
Playing with Words
I’m enjoying taking one word at a time on a whim, exploring its origins and its various uses. As I child I loved playing with letters to see what words I could make. As a wordsmith, I like to play with, manipulate, juxtapose and weave words, to see how many pictures can be made with these literary jigsaw pieces.
Finding out about idioms, or phrases and sayings, can lead to juggling words to create new meanings, new pictures. Knowing the established idioms, we can try making up our own along similar lines, creating new language as we go, evolving with these words that make up our wonderful English tongue.
By ‘English’ I mean all the versions thereof which exist - in Britain, in Australia and New Zealand, in the US and Canada, in many places around the world where the language has evolved into all its different facets, each a shining surface contributing to the whole diamond, our gem of a language.
Cut me a slice please!
Etymology of 'cut'
www.etymonline.com tells us that cut (as a verb) comes from ‘late 13th century, possibly Scandinavian, from North Germanic kut (cognates: Swedish dialectal kuta ‘to cut’, kuta ‘knife’, Old Norse kuti ‘knife’), or from Old French couteau ‘knife’’. It replaced the Old English ceorfan (carve), sniban and scieran (shear). The meaning ‘to be absent without excuse’ is British university slang from 1794. To cut a pack of cards is from the 1590s.' (The French for ‘knife’, couteau, still exists.)
cut (as a noun) comes from the 1520s for a ‘gash, incision’, from the verb cut. The meaning of a ‘piece cut off’ is from 1590s and as a sense of ‘a wounding sarcasm’ is from 1560s.
A slightly different derivative is explained by https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ , cut being from Middle English ‘cutten, kitten, kytten, ketten’ (to cut), from Proto-Germanic ‘kutjana, kuttana’ (to cut), of uncertain origin, perhaps related to ‘kwetwa’ (meat, flesh). Also Old Norse ‘kuti’ (small knife), Norweigan ‘kyttel, kytel, kjutul’ (pointed slip of wood used to strip bark).
You get the drift; you can see the overall pattern.
Idioms & Sayings
We all know that the basic idea of ‘cut’ as a verb (a doing word) is to make a clean break through material or through flesh with scissors or a knife. You can cut your own finger by accident, on a knife or the edge of paper (a particular horror of mine) or on a plant such as a thorn or sharp blade of grass. Thus you have a cut, the noun (object), on your hand.
To cut and paste is a well-known phrase; those of us with computers and the like often cut a piece of text, move it elsewhere and paste it where we feel it belongs best.
There exists, however, a vast list of sayings which derive from ‘cut’, most of which you will know; some might be less obvious, some might entertain, some might inform. I have come up with the list below which is by no means exhaustive so I’d be pleased if you would add, in the comments section below, others that you know, especially those used in a particular dialect, region or country.
Also, no doubt there are obvious phrases which I’ve overlooked, so put me straight!
‘Cut’ is a short word; to me it implies a speed of action and indeed many of the idioms refer to just that. So it seemed apt to put them into what I hope is a fast-paced poem. Here goes.
Can you Cut It?
Explanation of 'cut to the chase'
http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings tells us that ‘the phrase originated in the US film industry. Many early silent films ended in chase sequences preceded by obligatory romantic storylines. The first reference to it dates back to that era, just after the first ‘talkie’, The Jazz Singer in 1927. It is a script direction from Joseph Patrick McEvoy’s novel Hollywood Girl, 1929:
‘Jannings escapes... Cut to chase’
Several later references take the slight change of meaning to a sense of missing out all the unnecessary bits and getting to the interesting part, such as all the action movies where the chase is the part everyone’s waiting for.
Cutting the Rug
Shorty lived by the cut,
offshoot of a canal.
He cut a fine figure but puffed out his chest,
thought himself a cut above the rest,
until they cut him down to size,
told him he wasn’t such a prize.
He couldn’t cut it when at school,
cut his classes, played the fool.
They told him he was stupid, thick,
comments cut him to the quick.
They laughed at his haircut. He said, ‘Cut it out!
Cut me some slack! Just stop it!’ he’d shout.
Taking a short cut to town one day,
a sign ‘Join our Club’ drew his eye, made him stay.
He cut to the chase, made a vow to himself,
‘I’ll work hard at that, it’s good for my health.
Despite the derision this might cut me free.
It could make them stop, look at me differently.’
Shorty cut it fine each day at the door;
it all kicked off at a quarter past four.
He couldn’t be late or he’d lose his position.
He’d saved his money. He’d make them listen.
The cut of the cloth of his new suit was fine,
helping his chances to reach the big time.
Then they’d be sorry, they’d cut him some slack.
He wouldn’t be cut out, they’d welcome him back.
So clean cut and carefree, that boy took a chance;
he’d been to some classes, yes, but to dance!
To cut a long story short, he’d got the bug
and Shorty could move, he could twirl, he could hug.
They all watched him down at the Roxy that night.
The whole situation was clear cut alright.
Shorty had won all the hearts of the girls,
the short ones, the tall ones, the ones with dark curls.
His jive was the best, he could cut such a caper,
no one could cut in, no way she’d be safer.
He was cutting edge, he cut the mustard,
they called him the cream on top of the custard.
All he’d ever wanted was some recognition,
to feel some respect, to be in that position.
The dances were done for that night, he was rapt
when all his old enemies stood round and clapped.
He’d made it, he’d taken his cut and felt good,
he’d cut loose and wow was he glad, now he could
move to the rhythm, cut the pack, throw the dice,
come up trumps every time, boy! that felt nice.
The freedom, the fun, the glide and the tug
put him way up there when cutting the rug!
But wait! There's more!
I couldn’t quite get all I wanted into that little ditty, so we’re continuing by way of a nautical theme.
A tenuous link to the word ‘cut’ is the ship’s name ‘Cutty Sark’. The rhythm and swell of the waves lends itself to poetry, so off we sail again...
Cutting here & cutting there
The Cutty Sark
Cutting through the waves, with sails billowed full,
All hands on deck, all ready to pull
at the ropes, hold her fast, try to keep steady.
Those winds howling round made the young man feel heady.
Tom’s father had sailed these same seas many a time
but had fallen, perished, drowned, been cut off in his prime.
The son did oft wonder, a tear in his eye,
Why fate was so cruel, why his Pa had to die.
He’d been in a bar when they’d come in to find
fine young lads for their crew. When they had a mind
there was no one could stop them, or they’d be cut down.
On that day young Tom stared at them, with a frown.
You could cut the air with a knife, it hung heavy
with bad breath and b.o.* and anger, no levy
did those old tars take, nor excuse nor appeasement;
they’d do as they wished or to hell all were sent.
But our lad was strong; he’d had grief to give courage.
That first cut the deepest, not easy at his age,
but nothing was worse than the loss of his Pa;
cut from the same cloth, this lad would go far.
Seeing his chance to escape through the back,
with a bound he was gone, not a sign, not a crack
of shoe upon stone, as he cut across alleys,
finding his way to the docks, to the galleys.
‘Twas there that he joined up as ship’s kitchen boy,
on that ‘Cutty Sark’ where his father did toil.
He cooked cuts of meat, his dishes were tasty,
he stirred up his plot as he kneaded the pastry.
These were the sailors his father had served with,
the ones he held guilty of murder and theft;
murder because they had not stopped him fall,
theft because now he’d no father at all.
Oblivious, they ate the fine stew laced with poison,
they choked and they flailed and they fell where he’d chosen,
over the rails where the sea’s swell did swallow,
Tom’s faithful father for ever they’d follow.
Later, much later, the years having flown,
Tom took to the land and made his own home,
was Mayor of the town, a good man to rely on,
“I declare this fête open”, proud to cut the red ribbon.
But he never forgot those bad days on that clip
when vengeance was his for the loss of kinship.
He wouldn’t set foot on a ship e’er again
For fear that his mind would cut loose and then.....
He knew Cutty Sark was no longer so fine,
her crew they had mutinied, jumped ship, cut the line,
the captain abandoned his ship for the deep,
unable his honour and duty to keep.
Tom wondered if he’d cut the mould, been the first
to darken the ship, been the herald of worse,
or was father’s death the death knoll for that skip,
cursed to be glorious no more, doomed and split.
(*b.o. - short for body odour)
Use your Imagination!
You’re allowed to cringe at some of the connivance of the rhymes above but it’s all in the name of experiment! Maybe some lines should have been left on the cutting room floor.
The point is, use your judgement, use your ingenuity, experiment and invent. Come up with your own verses, your own prose, your own phrases, paragraphs, stories and books. Make the cut of the words suit your own purpose.
The Real Story of the Cutty Sark
‘Cutty Sark’ was a tea clipper, one of the fast sailing ships of the 19th century. The tea trade was very competitive and each voyage in Victorian times was a race to get back to port first, in order to obtain the highest price for the tea. The Cutty Sark was admired as one of the fastest.
Sadly, due to the increasing use of the more powerful and reliable steamships, these clippers fell into decline. In 1880 the Cutty Sark set off to deliver coal to Japan. The voyage was never completed.
‘A fight amongst the crew left one man dead, and when the man responsible was allowed to escape by the captain, the rest of the crew mutinied. The ship’s captain, realising his career was ruined, committed suicide by stepping off the ship’s stern into the sea. These dark events gave the Cutty Sark a new reputation amongst sailors, as a ‘hellship’ and a cursed vessel.’
Robbie Burns, Poet
How the Cutty Sark got her Name
‘Cutty Sark’ comes from a famous poem, ‘Tam O’Shanter’ by Robert Burns, concerning a farmer (Tam) who is chased by a scantily-clad witch named ‘Nannie’. Nannie is dressed only in a ‘cutty sark’, an ancient Scottish name for a short nightdress or shirt. Nannie is depicted as the figurehead adorning the bow of the ‘Cutty Sark’.
Jock Willis, the original owner of the ship, chose her name. It was allegedly suggested by the ship’s designer, Hercules Linton, though is a strange choice for a ship as witches are supposedly unable to cross water.
So why did Jock select that particular name? Maybe because he was patriotic, choosing a name inspired by Scotland’s most famous poet. Another ship in his fleet was named ‘Halloween’, also the name of a Burns’ poem.
I have my own theory as to why. The name sounds jaunty, evokes the ‘cutting’ through the waves of a sharp prow. The wind would catch the sails as it would a skimpy petticoat! The cut and thrust atmosphere of such a time might have been something to do with it. Maybe Mr Willis just liked the sound of it; maybe he recognised a good word when he saw it. Maybe he was a writer too!
A Whisky a cut above the rest?
‘Cutty Sark’ is also the name of an iconic whisky, as well as a pub in Greenwich, London (where the renovated ship is moored).
Now it's time for me to cut and run before I outstay my welcome.
Copyright annart/AFC 2015
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