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Cut and Run

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Joelline, Jun 18, 2006.

  1. Joelline

    Joelline Senior Member

    USA (W. Pennsylvania)
    American English
    If you've been reading American newpapers recently (or watching American TV), you've seen or heard over and over the expression, "cut and run": as in "We're not going to cut and run in Iraq."

    Without, PLEASE, getting into politics, can anyone explain what the "cut" part of this means? I've looked up "cut" in many dictionaries, and the closest I can come to this use of cut is in the following expressions(freedictionary.com):

    a. To separate from a main body; detach: to cut a limb from a tree.
    b. To separate from a group: to cut a calf from a herd.
    c. To discharge from a group or number: they had to cut six players from the team.

    But you wouldn't add "and run" to any of these (except maybe b.).

    Does anyone know any other meaning of "cut" that makes sense in "cut and run"?

    Thanks,
    Joelline
     
  2. maxiogee Senior Member

    imithe
    To cut and run means to "cut" oneself loose from a situation. I presume it might be related to a ship leaving a harbour in a hurry and not waiting to undo the mooring lines, but slashing them from the deck of the ship. It means to leave without formalities.
    Many people are saying that the US ought to just leave now, without waiting for whatever pre-set conditions they might wish to have already decided need to be operational before they go.
     
  3. volky

    volky Senior Member

    Puerto Rico, USA
    Spanish/English
    "We're not going to cut and run in Iraq"

    I think it is used to say that we, the USA government, are not going to abandon Iraq and leave them without support.

    That's just my interpretation.
     
  4. Bil

    Bil Senior Member

    English USA
    Hi Joelline

    It's simply a euphemism for 'chicken out'. Cut? Cut one's losses.
     
  5. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Adelaide
    Australia English
    http://www.word-detective.com/072104.html

    But the roots of "cut and run" actually lie in the days of sailing ships. A ship at anchor coming under sudden attack by the enemy, ... would sacrifice the anchor by cutting the cable, allowing the ship ... to escape the attack quickly. "To cut and run" was thus an accepted military tactic in emergencies, and the phrase itself dates to at least the early 1700s. By the mid-1800s, "cut and run" was ... used as a metaphor for ... giving up ... in the face of difficulty, and appears ... in Dickens's 1861 novel Great Expectations.
     
  6. Joelline

    Joelline Senior Member

    USA (W. Pennsylvania)
    American English
    Thanks guys,

    I do know what it means; I just couldn't figure out the use of "cut" in the expression, but Maxiogee and Brioche have, I believe, offered an excellent explanation.

    I really, really want to believe it comes from a naval term and not from a cowboy/Texan expression! Sorry, I couldn't resist saying that!

    Joelline


    Brioche, Thanks for the reference to the word-detective site! I've bookmarked it!
     
  7. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    I agree with maxiogee about the nautical origin of "cut and run." As I learned it, it means to get caught at anchor by an enemy ship, not moored to a dock-- it's pretty hard to "run" from port, whether you chop the lines or take the trouble to lift them off their moorings.

    That's because "run" in this context means that after you've severed the anchor line, you steer in the direction the wind happens to be blowing, and to do that you pretty much have to be in open water.

    When you run, it's with the same wind that's bringing the enemy ship-- if you were in port, that would be an onshore wind.

    Finally, hoisting anchor takes a lot longer than unmooring, because you can sail as you haul in line.

    "Cutting bait" is a similar expression, meaning to leave your fishing abruptly, cutting and wasting the line you have baited, rather than bother to pull it in and unbait it. The emotion behind this haste is disgruntlement or discouragement, where in cutting and running it's more likely desperation or even panic.
    .
     
  8. Joelline

    Joelline Senior Member

    USA (W. Pennsylvania)
    American English
    Thanks foxfirebrand,

    And yet the term "fish or cut bait" means something like "work with me or get out of the way" doesn't it?

    Joelline
     
  9. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Yes, with the implication that you should make the choice in a hurry.
    .
     
  10. Bil

    Bil Senior Member

    English USA
    Sitting in my sweats and sipping a cup of coffee while scratching my head in front of my prehistoric computer, it was easy, even romantic, to visualize a salty ol' eye-patched swashbuckler slashing through a thick hempen anchor cable on a moment's notice so that he and his fellow crew of cutthroats could beat a hasty and unceremonious retreat away from the Queen's Navy. But then I got to thinking (always thinkin'—I am, I am) about such a ridiculouly unnecessary squandering of such a hard-to-come-by hand-woven, absolutely essential piece of gear. Yes, I know, pirates aren't exactly famous for cerebral activity, but let's cut them a little slack. What's fishy about this scenario is that once the anchor's aweigh, that is, just clear of the seabed, we're already cutting a swift, breezy trail.

    Suddenly it hit me, hard—like a tub of freshly-cut whale blubber. The expression 'cut and run' has absolutely nothing to do with a ship's anchor. But take heart, mateys—you scurvy crew of pirates, gentleman-'n-lady buccaneers, as well as other miscellaneous forero riffraff—all has not foundered. The idiom dates back to the days of square-rigged sailing vessels and the need on occasion by certain sneaky individuals to be at the ready for escape. The sails in these instances were tied to the yards with temporary light-weight ropeyarn that could easily be cut in the wink of an eye to let the canvas fall, (similar to keeping the engine idling during a bank robbery).

    Either the expression has evolved, or, nowadays, 'cut and run' is just being misapplied. That's why I take it simply as a euphemism for cutting one's losses and hightailing it, in other words, chickening out.

    Ahoy!
     
  11. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    My first reaction on reading your account of temporary rigging was to think, "I knew some real sailing buff would come up with something like this." I am but a poor rigger of words-- the only cutting and running I do involving hemp is to jettison certain cargo through a rusted-out hole in the floor of my car during a high-speed chase.

    But my faith in the explanation involving anchors wouldn't abide. I pondered yours, and was nagged by doubts about this account of being surprised on the open sea where one wouldn't be anchored. The image of nearby land forms was stuck in my mind-- an enemy dreadnought suddenly rounding a cape and coming into view. Among the imaginary emotions that rose in my heart, the thought of scrimping on a little hemp, or indeed saving an anchor-- were not among them.

    How could a ship be snuck up on except on a fairly stiff wind, in which case no ship would likely be adrift-- she would either be anchored or under sail. If the sails were reefed and the anchor aweigh or hauled all the way in, the wind would have to be "idle" indeed-- obviating the scenario of the sudden ambuscade by another vessel.

    With my conscious mind unknotting these puzzles, the unconscious was free to let slip a clue from its otherwise well-guarded depths-- a clearer notion of the source of the anchor story "as I learned it." It came from a time when I read anything I could find by William Safire-- a not-so-poor rigger of words.

    So I googled "william safire" and "cut and run," and fortunately this link was near the top of the 542 hits that came up.

    The pertinent part is: "The nautical metaphor was defined in the 1794 'Elements and Practice of Rigging and Seamanship' as ''to cut the cable and make sail instantly, without waiting to weigh anchor.'' In those days, the anchor cable was made of hemp and could be cut, allowing an escaping vessel to run before the wind."

    Maybe Google isn't so evil after all.
    .
     
  12. Bil

    Bil Senior Member

    English USA
    Hi Foxfire

    I could see in your first response that something was nagging you, something about trusting what's putative. You were the only one that used the word "chop," understanding that cutting through a large-diameter hempen anchor cable would be no easy feat. To aweigh anchor, dislodge it from the seabed, would be just as quick. If for some reason the crew wanted to abandon the anchor, they could simply veer it out. The explanation just doesn't make sense. The vessel is already underweigh at that moment.

    Nos vemos, amigo.
     
  13. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Boy I don't know-- even a hawser could be severed in as many strokes as it had braids, especially if the line were taut. And it would be taut indeed if the ship were rigged ready to run with the wind at a moment's notice.

    Not only are taut anchor lines easier to sever, they are harder to unbed-- because of the only partially-reefed sail, the anchor would tend to grapple pretty stubbornly.

    All these ships had carpenters and carpentry tools, including broad framing hatchets (single-beveled) that were kept sharp enough to hew and shape green hardwood. The bevel on a framing hatchet is also very acute.

    At no time did I conjure the romantic images of pirates flailing at a knotty target with their wee cutlasses
     
  14. Bil

    Bil Senior Member

    English USA
    That's my point, Firefox. Which takes longer, which is the focus, setting canvas or aweighing anchor?

    Aside from Melville and Dana:
    Isil, Olivia A. When a Loose Cannon Flogs a Dead Horse, There's the Devil to Pay.
     
  15. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    They're done simultaneously. The whole crew is scrambling, each doing some part of the skedaddle drill. The carpenter and those detailed incidentally as his laborers are hacking away, the ordinary able-bodied seamen are rigging according to the posts they happen to be manning at the time of the threat or attack.

    What is your basis for rejecting the explanation from the 1794 Elements and Practice of Rigging and Seamanship cited by Mr. Safire? You yourself say your own version was derived from personal pondering and deduction. Can you cite any sources that authenticate what you say about hacking a hemp rope in half?

    I've cut my share of rope just to get an unfrayed end that can be taped off-- when you skid logs with natural rope, it gets dragged a lot, and needs trimming. A rope thicker than the butt end of a pool cue can be severed at a single swift stroke, and with a double-beveled axe at that. The kerf of a framer's broadaxe is half as wide.
    .
     
  16. daddyPaddy New Member

    Media PA
    USA/English
    I would have to agree with Firefox. Noting that while you are at anchor your ship would be adrift with the wind. In order to unbed your anchor you would have to turn into your attacker/wind and hope that you can free-up before the attacker reaches you. Cutting the anchor allow you to run with the wind almost immediately. Although the anchor and line has such enormous value, the sailors’ lives were the main consideration. The penalty of the "cut and run" tactic is that now you have to get to a safe port and look toward running your vessel aground in at low tide until you remedy your situation.
     
  17. ericscot Senior Member

    I always arrive late to these discussions. I'll just add that another excellent reference to the type of cable cutting proposed by Max and Foxfire is the twenty-book Aubrey/Maturin Series by Patrick O'Brian (on which the Master and Commander movie was based). He describes sailing tactics in considerable detail, building most of his stories around British admiralty record accounts. My point is that he describes the process of cutting the heavy, sodden anchor cable with axes for the purpose getting underway very quickly (for flight or otherwise) on numerous occasions, none of which I could find in a quick search (20 books!!).

    On a probably unrelated note, I was also reminded that the act of boarding and taking an enemy ship that had been anchored in a port or harbor was called "cutting out."
     

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