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cut some slack

Posted: Fri Mar 09, 2007 7:54 pm
by nicktecky
Whilst cogitating on matters nautical, I assumed this phrase originated from sailing vessels. Cutting a sheet in a high wind to slacken the sail seemed to me to be a likely origin, but thinking further, it didn't seem to add up.
Any ideas?
Perhaps tailoring?

cut some slack

Posted: Fri Mar 09, 2007 8:36 pm
by trolley
I think that the nautical angle works fine. I have always taken it quite literally. If something was too tight or constricting, like a rope around your neck or a deadline from your boss, you might ask to be given some slack. Sometimes you need a little slack to loosen a tight rope. It may be so taut that it would have to be cut.

cut some slack

Posted: Sat Mar 10, 2007 3:12 am
by Wizard of Oz
.. this is interesting .. one of the first definitions I found gave the following ..
cut sb some slack American & Australian, informal to allow someone to do something that is not usually allowed, or to treat someone less severely than is usual
Source: Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms
.. why interesting ?? .. because I would’ve thought that the use of cut in this instance was an American usage, not Australian .. I had thought that this expression would’ve developed from a standard, ”Give me some slack” .. a fairly standard request in any pursuit requiring the handling of ropes, eg sailing, climbing, where somebody is requesting more loose rope so as to complete some action or ease the rope tension .. but cut , for me, has a distinctly African-American sound about it ..

.. I am not suggesting that this expression is not used in Australia as this quote from the corridors of power indicates ..
2001: Hansard extract, NSW Legislative Assembly, 26 June 2001 (article 39). I am simply speaking about the Government using its weight in a public forum in the parliamentary sense to call on these insurers to cut some slack to these people who are willing to work hard to put bread on their tables and on the tables of those they employ.
.. simply that it has the feel of being imported rather than a local grown variety .. *quakes in fear waiting for Ken to show that the expression comes form an Aboriginal dialect of the Simpson Desert*

WoZ of Aus 10/03/07

cut some slack

Posted: Sat Mar 10, 2007 3:19 pm
by Shelley
I hear and use this phrase both literally and figuratively. I'm puzzled about the word "cut" in this phrase, too. In the nautical reference, does it mean to actually sever the rope? Seems to me the only time that would happen is when it was so taut that no amount of strength could pull even the tiniest bit of looseness. But then the rope would be useless, right? On ships they have lots of rope, so maybe that's no big deal.
Now, "cut me some slack" when used literally doesn't necessarily mean to actually cut the rope. So, the word "cut" does not mean to sever the rope -- but maybe.
So: "'Cut' me some slack, and if you have to, really cut. If it's a noose, don't even think about it!"

cut some slack

Posted: Sat Mar 10, 2007 8:06 pm
by Ken Greenwald
Nick et al, Contrary to what some people and sources say (see Facts on File and Safire’s 1994 quote below), I am close to certain that CUT SOME SLACK and CUT SOMEONE SOME SLACK did not originate as a nautical terms, nor were they ever used among ‘serious’ sailors. It is not included in any of the several nautical dictionaries I checked nor could I find an actual example of it being used as a sailing term.

I spent my youth 1940s-60s on boats and no one ever asked me, nor did I ever hear anyone ask anyone, to CUT SOME SLACK or CUT THEM SOME SLACK. And I don’t recall hearing the phrases in any context in either college or the Army in the 1960s, and would estimate that I probably first heard them in the 1980s. Cassell’s dates it from the 1960s, Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang from the 1980s, and the earliest example I unearthed was from 1974 (see below).

But most damning for the nautical theory is the result of a phone call to my brother-in-law, Chuck Gates, this morning. He is steeped in the history of sailing and has been involved in sailing and racing since he was a tot (in the 1950s). He has, among many other sailing experiences, competed in every major sailing race in the world, and, in fact, was rated one of the top 10 sailors in the world by Yachting Magazine, sailed the South Pacific with his girlfriend for one glorious year, and is one of the skippers of the expedition yacht the (Pelagic), which this past summer attempted to navigate theNorthwest Passage (but unfortunately failed – the ice wasn’t cooperating). And I think you get the picture. His response to my question was an emphatic – CUT SOME SLACK and CUT SOMEONE SOME SLACK are not nautical terms nor, to his knowledge, have they ever been!

From the information I was able to find on the subject, I would tend to go with the idea that the ‘slackness’ in CUT SOME SLACK refers to the Standard English definition of ‘slack’ meaning not tense or taut (‘a slack rope,’ ‘slack muscles,’ etc.), loose, with no particular reference to the nautical. This seems to be endorsed by Cassell’s (below) whose explanation doesn’t absolutely rule out a sailing origin, but certainly doesn’t promote it either. And since ‘nautical’ would seem to be the obvious choice, the lack of its mention there would seem to me to be equivalent to a ‘no’ vote.

In any event, the expressions CUT SOME SLACK and CUT SOMEONE SOME SLACK are not very old and didn’t appear in print (it is said – see below) until the mid 1900s (earliest I found was from 1974 - see quote below). And Wiz, your African-American sense seems to be on the mark, at least according to Cassell’s:

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang

CUT SOME SLACK verb (originally U.S. Black) 1) [1960s and still in use] To ease the pressure upon, to permit the subject to relax. [[But where did U.S. blacks get the ‘cut’ and the ‘slack’ from? That is the question. Perhaps the answer is from a slang meaning of the word CUT (see definition below) and the Standard English meaning of SLACK, that which hangs loose]].

SLACK [1950s and still in use]: Freedom, leeway, relief of pressure; thus give some slack, to let someone relax, to stop pressuring. [from Standard English ‘slack,’ that which hangs loose].

Dictionary of American Slang by Chapman

CUT someone SOME SLACK verb phrase 1980s: To stop pressuring or importuning someone; let someone be; Clinton should lie low for a while, and the rest of us should cut him some slack—National Public Radio news / I probably cut him more slack than I have with other guysMilwaukee Journal

The following may not be the same CUT, but then again maybe it is – it sort of fits:

CUT verb: Tolerate or manage. (Dictionary of American Regional English, Historical Dictionary of American Slang)

CUT IT verb [late 19th century and still in use] (originally U.S.): To manage, to deal with (difficult situations) (Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang)
<1899 “Hello, there, pal . . . how’re CUTTIN’ it this morning?”—‘Tales’ by Cullen, page 62>

<1928 “Can’t CUT IT, said the turnkey.”—‘Little Caesar,’ page 137

<1965 “OK, I just can’t cut cream cheese”—‘Dictionary of Regional English’>
On the other hand, the following does say it is an allusion to a sail (but the rope could be on anything). However, since I was unable to find an example earlier than the purported 1950-60s black usage and my 1974 black usage), and in light of my above comments, I remain unconvinced about a nautical origin – which I think is the easy answer some accepted without doing any serious checking. But perhaps others may be able to unearth something that I missed and prove me wrong:

Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés

CUT SOMEONE SOME SLACK: To give someone more time or more of a chance, to ease up on someone. This term, dating from the mid-1900s, alludes to the slackening of tautness in a rope or sail.
<1974 “But I don't want the service to be too dead, you understand. I want people to get happy the same way they do when CE is up there preaching. ‘When he's preaching self-hate and nigger lies?’ Antar asks. ‘You don't even know him, man. CUT SOME SLACK, huh?’—‘Look What They Done to My Song: A Novel’ (1974) by John McCluskey, page 233> [[Book is a humorous depiction of jazz music in Boston in the 1960s by a noted black author]]

<1988 “In other words: OK, so the guy didn’t follow protocol. He’s a newcomer to the political game. Let’s CUT HIM SOME SLACK while he gets his team together, even though he’s a Democrat and we’ve got the upper hand.”—‘Syracuse Herald Journal’ (New York), 6 April, page 14>

<1994 “The noun slacker — from the adjective slack, meaning ‘loose’ — first appeared in 1898 to refer go ‘one who avoids work or physical exercise; a shirker.” During World War I, it was a derogation of anyone avoiding military service, including conscientious objectors. In World War II, it was used interchangeably with draft dodger. Since the late 1960’s, it has regained its original, general meaning as a second sense, . . . The harsh edge of the word may have been softened by the influence of CUT HIM SOME SLACK, derived form loosening a taut rope in sailing, its meaning extended to ‘ease up on him; allow room for maneuver.’”—‘On Language’ by William Safire, ‘New York Times,’ 3 July, page SM8>

<2003 “‘There were some details in that briefing that were flawed,’ Christopher E. Isham, chief of investigative projects for ABC News, said of Mr. Powell’s case at the United Nations. ‘ But the overall thrust of that briefing was consistent with our reporting, so there may be a little bit of a tendency to CUT HIM SOME SLACK.’”—‘New York Times,’ 22 March, page B10>
Ken G – March 9, 2007

cut some slack

Posted: Sat Mar 10, 2007 10:02 pm
by Bobinwales
The same sense of cut as in "cut the mustard" perhaps. That particular phrase always sounded nonsense to me.

I know that you dealt with it here.

cut some slack

Posted: Sat Mar 10, 2007 11:22 pm
by Shelley
Ken Greenwald wrote:
I spent my youth 1940s-60s on boats
What, Ken, were you born on one? I always figured you were a son of a gun!
<1965 “OK, I just can’t cut cream cheese”—‘Dictionary of Regional English’>
I immediately thought "can't cut the mustard", too, Bobinwales. To me, it's always meant a total lack of ability, strength or will to accomplish a goal or task.

cut some slack

Posted: Sun Mar 11, 2007 11:10 pm
by Ken Greenwald
Shelley and Bob, There are those who believe that a son of a gun was born on a boat. But actually I wasn’t born on one – it only felt that way! When people invest bucks in boats they often feel obligated to use them, so we spent a lot of time on the water, although it really wasn’t that much of a chore. (&lt)

I count about 15 definitions for the slang verb CUT. The one that seems to fit best in CUT SOME SLACK is the one from the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) meaning ‘tolerate or manage,’ with ‘tolerate’ seeming to be the better of the two and also fitting very well in the 1965 quote, ‘I can’t cut [[tolerate]] cream cheese.' And, although one can’t be sure, it might be the same 'cut' as the one used in ‘cut the mustard,’ since one of the proposed derivations for this phrase is from ‘manage the muster’ (see cut the mustard). However, this is all surmise since the origin remains ‘uncertain.’

Ken – March 11, 2007

cut some slack

Posted: Tue Mar 13, 2007 10:54 am
by nicktecky
And I thought it was going to be simple!
My nautical conjecture was about cutting ropes in the event of a sudden squall, I must admit to a little mid 19th century schooner romanticism; too many pirate films as a lad no doubt!
However, what about "I don't like the cut of your jib, sir"?
Woosteresque version of "I have taken offence at your words, sir"
This would put 'cut' into the nautical dictionary.
I notice no one went for the tailoring angle, the more I think of it I'm sure it has to be right. We're talking bespoke here, of course. Cutting being a specific separate skill and process in tailoring.
Tailor to ample client: " I'll get them to cut you some extra slack in the waist, sir, just for comfort of course".
So that would be a literal origin.

cut some slack

Posted: Tue Mar 13, 2007 5:24 pm
by trolley
Well, nautical or knaut, it still conjures up thoughts of ropes and ties for me. “Cut me..”. seems a little more urgent than “give me…”, especially if I was dancing a few feet above the ground.

cut some slack

Posted: Tue Mar 13, 2007 5:30 pm
by tony h
I notice no one went for the tailoring angle
of the well dressed debonair young gentleman: he is a bit of a blade, cuts quite a dash in that new suit.

The sort of phrase my grandparents would have used quite regularly, and one which I am also prone to using.

Note that someone who "cuts a dash" was described as a "blade". You would be careful not to let your daughters out without a chaperone but would be quite happy for her to receive an offer of marriage.

cut some slack

Posted: Wed Mar 14, 2007 12:13 pm
by nicktecky
Back to the seaside for a mo:
Having googled around for an hour or so, I can report the following:
A sail is made up of panels, and the joins can be either vertical or horizontal. A sail will be either cut vertically or horizontally (or crosscut).
The cut is also the shape of the physical cut made in the cloth to make the sail, which is curved to induce camber, this makes the sail more aerodynamic. It seems to be expressed as a ratio. In square rigged ships, a sail may be said to be flat cut, which means it doesn't fill out very much, or full cut meaning it is quite rounded when in use. The cut is also the shape made by the sail when under way.
Associating 'slack' and 'cut': the cut (shape) of a square rig sail can be varied by reefing or furling. You could slacken the reefs to change the cut, but that appears to be about it. It still makes no sense of the phrase.


Could the phrase be associated with riding? We seem to have an American origin, and the Western style famously uses a slack rein.
So, we would then add it to the legion of riding metaphors:
Keep on a tight rein.
Ride them too hard.
Give them their head.
Champing at the bit. etc.
One could imaging the following:
Lieutenant to Sergeant " you seem to be riding the Privates a bit hard, old man, try cutting them a bit of slack"
Or we could be back to tailoring there!