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Cut and dried

A less common synonym of the idiom cut and dried is cut and dry, and it would have served my purpose better, because this essay is about the verb cut, and two weeks later the adjective dry will be the subject of a post. But let us stay with the better-known variant.

Most dictionaries state that the origin of cut is unknown. As usual, this statement should be taken with a grain of salt. Unknown usually means that no convincing etymology exists, rather than that nothing at all has been said about a problematic word. And the word cut is indeed problematic. It turned up in texts only in Middle English and successfully ousted or crowded out the much older and widely used verbs of roughly the same meaning: snīþan (compare German schneiden, because Engl. snithe is obsolete; the adjective snide is of course related), ceorfan (Modern Engl. carve), and sceran (as seen in Modern Engl. share). This is a common scenario in word history: upstarts appear from seemingly nowhere and displace “respectable” old-timers—an instructive analog of human history, with the plebs destroying the old nobility or reducing it to the state of a disenfranchised group.

Attempts to find the ancient (respectable) relatives of cut have been made, and I’ll mention them, but they will hardly dispel the obscurity in which the history of this verb is enveloped. The fist thing we learn about cut is the absence of its cognates anywhere in Germanic. Similar words exist in Celtic: Welsh cwtau “to shorten,” Gaelic Irish cut “a tail,” and a few others. For a long time, it was believed that Engl. cut was a borrowing from Celtic. But the Celtic stock also lacks pedigree, so that, even if we conclude that English words were taken over from Irish or Welsh, we won’t learn too much. The great English scholar Henry Sweet believed in the Celtic origin of cut, but he was probably mistaken. After all, the English verb is rather old (its earliest attestation goes back to the thirteenth century). At present, most historical linguists prefer to derive the Celtic words from English. The “ultimate truth” will probably never be known, but, wherever it lies, the origin of cut remains a mystery. In this context, it may be useful to note that three periods are discernible in the history of English etymology with regard to Celtic: for quite some time, Celtic fantasies (Celtomania) reigned supreme (hundreds of words were traced to Irish or Welsh), then the proverbial pendulum swung in the opposite direction, and at present, fortunately, every word is analyzed individually, without recourse to nationalistic fervor.

Cut and dried. Photo by Valeria Boltneva from Pexels. Public domain.

Although bereft of cognates, cut has some Scandinavian look-alikes. One of them is Icelandic kjöt, with its doublet kvett, “meat.” Last week (June 24, 2020), while discussing the origin of the word knife, in anticipation of this discussion, we posted a huge picture of a knife among many pieces of meat. Can cut have anything to do with the Scandinavian word? In the north, it is not isolated: Norwegian kjøt, Swedish kött, and Danish kød are reflexes (continuations) of the same Old Norse noun, which once must have sounded approximately like ketwa-. The connection is unlikely: no Scandinavian word sounds like cut, and only ket “carrion” has been attested in English dialects, obviously a borrowing from the North.

Modern Icelandic kúti “little knife” surfaced in the language only in the seventeenth century and must have been borrowed from French couteau “knife.” Along with kúti, the verb kúta (“to cut”) exists, which is also almost modern, and, though it has sometimes been looked upon as the source of Engl. cut, it is too recent to explain the origin of the Middle English verb. To use James A. H. Murray’s favorite phrase, this reconstruction “is at odds with chronology.”

The French words exist, as though to tease us and invite implausible comparisons. Couteau goes back to Latin cultellus, a diminutive form of culter “knife, plowshare,” known to English speakers from co(u)lter. The Latin word must have meant something like “striker.” Cutlass, from French coutelas, is related to co(u)lter, but cutlet is not! Cutlet returns us to French couteau, French côtelette, from Old French costelette, diminutive of costa “rib.” Engl. cute is a prefix-less variant of acute, from Latin acūtus, the past particle of acuere “to sharpen” (Engl. acid, acme, acumen, and a few other words have the same root). Even Engl. cutter “vessel” is not necessarily from cut + er! This short list shows how careful one should be in stringing together seemingly related forms.

There have been attempts to connect Engl. cut with Icelandic kjá “to rub.” The idea inspiring such attempts is that cut is an ancient, even very ancient verb, with the root going back to Indo-European geu– “to cut” with an “extension” (a kind of suffix, in this case –t). Massimo Poetto, a specialist in the Indo-European antiquities, cited the cuneiform word –kudur “part of a sacrificial animal,” which he compared with the Scandinavian words cited above. Armenian ktrel also means “to cut.” But there’s “the rub”: nothing testifies to the antiquity of the English verb. Numerous colloquial words were coined late. Likewise, slang thrives nowadays without any ties to the venerable past.

A sacrificial animal. Hardly an inspiration for the English verb cut. Image courtesy of the Louvre Museum via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

The OED presents an excellent picture of the history of cut, and so does The Century Dictionary, but The Century Dictionary also says in passing that cut took “the place as a more exact term of the more general words having this sense (carve, hew, slay, snithe); imitative.” It is hard to decide how “exact” the new verb was. I have quoted the passage for the sake of the word imitative. Every now and then, we run into monosyllabic verbs like dig and cut and have the impression that they were coined to reflect, with verbal means, the strenuous effort associated with the actions described. To be sure, the reference to an effort does not explain why just dig or cut, rather than, for instance, tig or gut (the choice of the sounds must have been, to a certain extent, arbitrary), but it frees us from the fruitless efforts to look for Indo-European roots where they probably never existed.

The combinations must have been justified at the psychological level, because they tend to recur in various languages. Such are Engl. butt, kick, hit, hitch, hack, chap ~ chop, and so forth, which are sometimes grudgingly labeled in dictionaries as sound-symbolic or imitative. We can compare cut and put. At one time, those verbs rhymed, as they still do in northern British dialects. The so-called ultimate origin of put is said to be unknown, and again Celtic analogs turn up, to be dismissed as borrowings from English. What is “ultimate origin”? Some Indo-European root? Is that the wild goose we are chasing?

Wild goose chase: an inspiring, if not always a profitable, occupation. Goose chase by Brendan Lally. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

We may never find out how put and cut came into being, but, if agree that we are dealing with medieval slang or perhaps with medieval expressive, emphatic, not necessarily imitative, verbs belonging to more or less the same emotional sphere, we’ll probably be on the right track and will allow the Hittites, Sumerians, French, Dutch, and everybody else in the wide world to coin similar words under similar circumstances, according to the model Wilhelm Oehl, often referred to in this blog, called primitive creation (in German elementare Wortschöpfung).

Feature image credit: photo by Helmut Jungclaus. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    Its simple! The origin of “cut” is the ancient Greek “κοπτω” (to cut). Attested in Homer!

    You will continue missing the mark as long as you continue ignoring the Greek!

    I am puzzled and I ask, “why you do that”!

    It must have something to do with why you also advocate ‘spelling reform’!


  2. Olivier van Renswoude

    Concerning cognates within Germanic: a while back I stumbled upon Middle Dutch ondercotten ‘to undermine’ in the Middelnederlandsch Woordenboek, where it is connected with not only regional (miners’) German kutten ‘to dig’ and English to cut, but also Middle Dutch coten ‘to torment, tease’ (presumably < ‘to pick, poke’) and coteren ‘to pick (one’s teeth)’. The latter survives in Flanders as koteren, keuteren ‘to pick (one’s teeth, nose, ear etc.), poke, incite’ and has an exact cognate in Low German koatern, keutern ‘to poke (the fire)’ in Groningen, the other end of the Low Countries.

  3. Adam Czajka

    Indoeuropean has similar words in all languages including Polish, KUĆ – to hammer, or actually it describes vaguely the process of cutting out and shaping an object of metal.
    CUT in English looks like an immediate loan from some IE, be it some Celtic, or some Northwestern GBS in enclavs like Scotland or Kent when English was forming by picking words from all over the place.

  4. Constantinos Ragazas


    “CUT in English looks like an immediate loan from some IE, be it some Celtic, or some Northwestern GBS in enclavs like Scotland or Kent when English was forming…”

    Or, more likely, from the Neolithic Aegean settlers of Britain and Europe! As all the recent aDNA findings are telling us. Bringing with them their farming techniques along with their language. The reason why so many ‘primitive’ English words (and other European languages) have ancient Greek roots.


  5. Fred de Vries

    ‘Kut’ in modern Dutch means (vulgar) ‘vagina’. But another name for a ‘vagina’ is ‘snede’, which is ‘cut’ in English.

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