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Cut and dried

Q From Murray Berkowitz: I would appreciate help with the origin of the expression cut and dried if you would.

A Something that is cut and dried (sometimes cut and dry) is prearranged or inflexible, completely decided in advance, so it lacks freshness, originality or spontaneity. So much is known, but the expression itself often exercises the ingenuity of people who try to find a rationale for it.

A common American story, harking back to frontier days, is that it comes from meat that has been turned into jerky by cutting it into strips and drying it in the sun so that it will keep on long journeys. An alternative story is that it refers to timber cut and left to season by drying. One problem with these is that neither quite fits the idea of the idiom. Another is that the expression never turns up anywhere in the context of either timber processing or pioneering times in North America, as it ought to if there’s a link.

The true story is likely to be as prosaic as the expression itself. Though we can’t prove it, the saying is almost certainly from the cutting and drying of herbs for sale.

The first known use of the expression is in a letter to a clergyman in 1710 in which the writer commented that a sermon was “ready cut and dried”, meaning it had been prepared in advance, so lacking freshness and spontaneity. The next recorded use is in a poem by Jonathan Swift in 1730 which speaks of “Sets of Phrases, cut and dry, / Evermore thy Tongue supply” — clichés, in other words.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 22 Dec. 2007

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 22 December 2007.