To begin, let’s look at the etymology of the English words.
The explanation the book gave was that in the Old Testament we often read about a ‘covenant’ between an individual/s and God. This covenant was an agreement, or contract, between God and the person/people where on of the parties agrees to something such as not flooding the earth again or agreeing not to eat some tasty apples from a certain tree. As with all contracts it came with clauses. If you eat the apple you shall die / if I promise not to flood the lands you have to circumcise all your children, or some such thing. In reality it was not far removed from modern contracts where there are clauses stipulating what each party must do and consequences if these actions are not carried out. In modern contracts, how do we validate them? With a signature. This signature, it was argued, is really symbolic of a far earlier practice of closing contracts. But before I go on I’ll include some dictionary entries for covenant:cut (v.)
late 13c., possibly Scandinavian, from N.Gmc. *kut-, or from O.Fr. couteau "knife." Replaced O.E. ceorfan "carve," sniþan, and scieran "shear." Meaning "to be absent without excuse" is British university slang from 1794. The noun meaning "gash, incision" is attested from 1520s; meaning "piece cut off" is from 1590s; sense of "a wounding sarcasm" is from 1560s. To cut a pack of cards is from 1590s.
from O.E. dæl "part, share, quantity," and its verbal derivative dælan "to divide," from P.Gmc. *dailaz; also found in Balto-Slavic (cf. O.C.S. delu "part," Lith. dalis). Meaning "to distribute cards before a game" is from 1520s; business sense is 1837, originally slang. Meaning "an amount" is from 1560s. New Deal is from F.D. Roosevelt speech of July 1932. Big deal is 1928; ironic use first recorded 1951 in "Catcher in the Rye." To deal with, "handle", is attested from mid-15c. Deal breaker is attested by 1975.
The Hebrew word for covenant, as translated in the Old Testament, comes from a root of ‘to cut’. An agreement would be sealed with some cutting. To put it plainly, in ancient practises after an agreement was made between God and the parties involved an animal was sacrificed and the two parties passed between the two halves, as attested to below.cov•e•nant
kʌv ə nənt/ [kuhv-uh-nuh nt]
an agreement, usually formal, between two or more persons to do or not do something specified.
Law. an incidental clause in such an agreement.
the conditional promises made to humanity by God, as revealed in Scripture.
the agreement between God and the ancient Israelites, in which God promised to protect them if they kept His law and were faithful to Him.
a formal agreement of legal validity, esp. one under seal.
an early English form of action in suits involving sealed contracts.
c.1300, from O.Fr. covenant "agreement," originally prp. of covenir "agree, meet," from L. convenire "come together" (see convene). Applied in Scripture to God's arrangements with man, as a translation of L. testamentum, Gk. diatheke, both rendering Heb. berith (though testament is also used for the same word in different places). Covenanter (1638), especially used of Scottish Presbyterians who signed the Solemn League and Covenant (1643) for the defense and furtherance of their cause.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
Literally, a contract. In the Bible, an agreement between God and his people, in which God makes promises to his people and, usually, requires certain conduct from them. In the Old Testament, God made agreements with Noah, Abraham, and Moses. To Noah, he promised that he would never again destroy the Earth with a flood. He promised Abraham that he would become the ancestor of a great nation, provided Abraham went to the place God showed him and sealed the covenant by circumcision of all the males of the nation. To Moses, God said that the Israelites would reach the Promised Land but must obey the Mosaic law. In the New Testament, God promised salvation to those who believe in Jesus.
The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
A possible connection between the expression ‘cut a deal’ and the Hebrew translation of covenant could therefore be found in the early verbal derivative of the word ‘deal’, meaning ‘to divide’.Covenant definition
a contract or agreement between two parties. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word _berith_ is always thus translated. _Berith_ is derived from a root which means "to cut," and hence a covenant is a "cutting," with reference to the cutting or dividing of animals into two parts, and the contracting parties passing between them, in making a covenant (Gen. 15; Jer. 34:18, 19). The corresponding word in the New Testament Greek is diatheke, which is, however, rendered "testament" generally in the Authorized Version. It ought to be rendered, just as the word berith of the Old Testament, "covenant." This word is used (1) of a covenant or compact between man and man (Gen. 21:32), or between tribes or nations (1 Sam. 11:1; Josh. 9:6, 15). ….
It would appear to be likely that cutting a deal could be linked to this early form of covenant. The two parties would sacrifice an offering to seal the deal; indeed, it seems far more probable than a link to cutting a deck of cards, but there are a few problems with this explanation. So far I have only found one website which claims a direct link between the expression ‘to cut a deal’ and this ancient practise, and it is hardly a respected source.
I’ve also seen it hinted at in a book on Jewish customs:This phrase goes back to ancient practice of killing an animal and slicing it up to mark the beginning of a new agreement.
But these two sources hardly constitute a solid case and I get the impression that the audio book may have been influenced by the writings of Rafael Chodos. [Take note that in Gesenius’ book Jewish Hebrew Grammar I can find no such assertion to the etymology that Rafael puts forward.]The Jewish attitude towards justice and law - Pagina 41
Rafael Chodos - 1984 - 101 pagine
Gesenius explains the etymology of this word by reference to the cutting of
pieces of ... It is reminiscent of our contemporary idiom, "to cut a deal", ...
In addition, if this practice is so ancient, it is perplexing as to why the expression seems to turn up so late in the English language. 1850-60 are the earliest examples of ‘cut a deal’ that I can find in Google Books, and none seems to refer to a contractual agreements. In these examples ‘a deal’ appears to simply mean amount (as attested to in the etymology above).
In fact, it’s not until the 1990s that I start seeing ‘cut a deal’ used in any great numbers outside the meaning above, and interestingly enough, the hits are very entertainment magazine heavy.The Farmer's Magazine - 1869
But these gentlemen cut a deal of time to waste, for two of the trio took to riding their horses, and careering round as contentedly as if they were taking out their hour at Hastings or Brighton on some half-a-crown-a-sider.
Annual report - Pagina 36
Michigan State Horticultural Society - 1891
... the sum paid for carriage cuts a deal less figure than when it becomes a large fraction of the margin of profit or equals or even exceeds it. ...
To add further confusion to the argument, my copy of The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms (2000) has this origin:
This too seems unsatisfactory to me; after all, ‘to take a cut of’ something is actually quite different to ‘to make an agreement’. Add to that the fact that I cannot find corroboration of this etymology either.Cut a Deal – come to an arrangement, especially in business; make a deal. Chiefly N. Amer., informal – Cut here relates to the E20 US sense of cut (noun) as ‘share’ (of profits), rake-off’; the verb in this sense appears in the writings of Edgar Wallace (M20)
I decided to take a different angle.
‘Cut’ is used in many ways but one way it is used in idiomatic expressions such as ‘cut a dash’, ‘cut a fine figure’ is as a replacement for the verb ‘make’. This appears to be the logical way it is used in the expression ‘cut a deal’ (make a deal).
‘Make a deal’ has about the same history as ‘cut a deal’ and has likewise transformed, being used in a different context early on where ‘deal’ meant ‘amount’. So in expressions that I have found such as “1662 - And therefore when they make a deal of talk about P..” and “1800 - Don't tell a soul ; I make a deal of money in this little shop.” the meaning is the same as our modern day usage of ‘deal’ in expressions such as “they make a great deal of noise”.
It’s not until 1838 that ‘make a deal’ can be found to mean ‘coming to an agreement’.
This date is in agreement with the online etymology dictionary quote of 1837. It does, however, cast doubt on the idea that a deal was a business transaction, be it made or cut, until quite late in the English language, and this in turn casts doubt on the idea that the expression has such a long history to it. This is confirmed by two sources: “business sense is 1837, originally slang.” [etymonline.com], and in my copy of Fowler’s Usage of the English Language:"So here you be, Master Edward, come to make a deal, as I prophesied ; and ye ha' brought Bess wi' ye, to clinch the bargain. So much the better. ..."
Wedding Slippers by Mary Russell Mitford
At this point we have vastly different picture, and one which appears to contradict entirely the assertion of my audio book.Deal, n. 1.The usage of a d. instead of a great or good d., though as old as Richardson & Johnson (the Shakespearian what a deal! can hardly be adduced), has still only the status of a colloquialism, & should be avoided in writing even when the phrase stands as a noun (saved him a d. of trouble), & still more when it is adverbial (this was a d. better).
2. A d. in the sense of a piece of bargaining or give-&-take is still slang.
A further bit of information which I don’t feel is connected, but bothered me, is a quote I found from a 1920s book on pirates.
'What is a Deal Board?' I thought. As this quote is from 1927 it could refer to a Board Game as we know of them today as Parker Brothers were making board games from 1883. It obviously would have had some meaning to the reader as it is capitalized. I found several other instances of ‘Deal Boards’ mentioned around this time, and I can see that some of the descriptions are physical boards while some seem metaphorical.A general history of the pirates, Volume 2 - Pagina 151
Daniel Defoe, Charles Johnson - 1927
... separated it from the Body of the Patient, in as little Time as he could have cut a Deal Board in two; after that he heated his Ax red hot in the Fire,
Luckily, the dictionary offers me a simple solution to this wild goose chase.
So where does this leave me with the origin of the expression ‘cut a deal’? Does the expression come from these sacrificial rituals as part of a covenant, business slang, pine boards…?deal
"plank or board of pine," c.1400, from Low Ger. (cf. M.L.G. dele), from P.Gmc. *theljon. An O.E. derivative was þelu, "hewn wood, board, flooring."
There is another possibility. There is always the chance that the expression was always there, but in another language, until it finally made its way into English, in much the same way as we may still be able to find a connection between poker and Hebrew in another expression involving ‘deal’….
There may be the possibility that, perhaps like ‘big deal’, ‘to cut a deal’ entered the English language via displaced Jews in the mid-20th C.big deal
from mid-19c. in poker or business; as an ironic expression, popular in Amer.Eng. from c.1965, perhaps a translated Yiddishism (cf. a groyser kunst).
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
Do any of you heavyweights on WW feel like getting to the bottom of this?