Cut a Deal / Make a Deal / Covenant

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Cut a Deal / Make a Deal / Covenant

Post by PhilHunt » Mon Apr 19, 2010 11:20 am

While listening to an audio book the other day, the reader put forward an explanation for the origin of the expression ‘to cut a deal’. As I often do, I got to wondering if this assertion was correct. Instinctively I thought of card games such as poker where ‘dealing’ and ‘cutting’ the pack are often part of the ceremony, but I was dissatisfied with this as there seemed no obvious connection to ‘making an agreement’; The book, on the other hand, suggested that it originated from early ritualistic practises as described in the Old Testament, but was this true? I decided to do some digging.
To begin, let’s look at the etymology of the English words.
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.

deal (1)
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 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:
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. Unabridged

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

covenant definition
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.
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.
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). ….
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’.

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.
This phrase goes back to ancient practice of killing an animal and slicing it up to mark the beginning of a new agreement.
I’ve also seen it hinted at in a book on Jewish customs:
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", ...
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.]

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).
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. ...
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.
To add further confusion to the argument, my copy of The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms (2000) has this origin:
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)
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.

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’.
"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
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.” [], and in my copy of Fowler’s Usage of the English Language:
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.
At this point we have vastly different picture, and one which appears to contradict entirely the assertion of my audio book.

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.
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,
'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.
Luckily, the dictionary offers me a simple solution to this wild goose chase.
"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."
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…?

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’….
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
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.

Do any of you heavyweights on WW feel like getting to the bottom of this?
Signature: That which we cannot speak of, must be passed over in silence...or else tweeted.

Re: Cut a Deal / Make a Deal / Covenant

Post by hsargent » Mon Apr 19, 2010 11:37 pm

Not a heavy weight but I will mention the term "cut a check". Has always seemed strange when I heard this. I have always visualized part of the printing process even though it can be hand-written.

Adding to the mystery.
Signature: Harry Sargent

Re: Cut a Deal / Make a Deal / Covenant

Post by trolley » Tue Apr 20, 2010 12:59 am

PhilHunt wrote:
"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’."

In keeping with this idea is another "deal phrase"; to strike a deal. Here, "strike" also seems to be a simple substitute for "make". Strike a balance, strike a bargain, strike a pose. I did find one questionable explanation for "strike a deal" that had to do with Irish horse traders and their alleged practice of slapping hands with each other to seal a deal.......

Re: Cut a Deal / Make a Deal / Covenant

Post by PhilHunt » Mon Apr 26, 2010 5:00 pm

Trolley, your post got me thinking about the similarity between the expressions 'cut/strike/make a deal" and got me to wondering if it is a simple example of verbs used to describe physical actions in the production of recorded information being used in place of make.
This idea first came to mind when I saw the predominance of 'cut a deal' in the recording industry. I thought it is an easy transition from 'cut a record' to 'cut a record deal' to 'cut a deal'. The comparative process of recording information onto vinyl and recording information in a contract seems obvious. Moreover, incision in the process of cutting a record of information into buildings and monuments has a long history right up until relatively recent times.
It seems highly more likely to me that the verbs ‘cut & strike’ are being used as a substitute for ‘make’ because of their association with the idea of manual recording of information and not because of the use of ‘cut’ as a noun in business terminology, as quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of Idioms (2000), or any Hebrew tradition of covenant.
Signature: That which we cannot speak of, must be passed over in silence...or else tweeted.

Re: Cut a Deal / Make a Deal / Covenant

Post by PhilHunt » Wed Apr 28, 2010 5:57 pm

Seeing as no-one has taken up the challenge I might as well forge ahead with my dissection of the expression 'cut a deal' [sigh].

The more I look into the expression, and similar ones to it, the more I see a connection with early craft / trade and manual labour and modern business practise. Expressions such as:
Forge a partnership.
Strike a deal.
Hammer a deal.
Shape a deal.
Cut a deal

I’ve even found instances of ‘Weld a deal.’

And by extension
Work on a deal.
Drive a hard bargain.
Cook a deal.

It seems obvious to me that there is a simple metaphor at play here. A Deal used to mean literally a quantity of something. This something had form and could be shaped, the same way we form and shape metal or wood to make useful or saleable objects. The modern understanding of a deal as an agreement still carries the implies meaning that a deal is something that can be shaped and forged by human endeavour; thus, we work on a deal in the same way we may work on a piece of furniture or work on a boat.

In conclusion, and for lack of supporting evidence, I would completely discount the Oxford origin for ‘cut a deal’ and any which states it comes from a Hebrew origin. I think it obvious that it is a simple transference of a Direct Meaning into an Indirect Meaning.
Signature: That which we cannot speak of, must be passed over in silence...or else tweeted.

Re: Cut a Deal / Make a Deal / Covenant

Post by hsargent » Thu Apr 29, 2010 2:32 pm

I focused on the "cut a".

The term "deal" is not a quantity but an agreement. We have a game show...."Let's make a deal".
Signature: Harry Sargent

Re: Cut a Deal / Make a Deal / Covenant

Post by KeyWester1 » Wed Apr 17, 2013 5:08 pm

I'm pretty sure the source was the Hebrew bible. Going to the Blue Letter Bible site, I searched the King James Version (KJV) for the word "cut" - which is transliterated kerath. The word is translated cut off 145 times, make 85 times, cut down 23 times, cut 9 times, fail 6 times, destroy 4 times, want 3 times, covenanted 2 times, and hew 2 times.

Cut a Deal/Make a Covenant/Cut a paycheck. In the KJV the word is always translated "make" when it refers to making an agreement, whether "cutting covenant with God" or making a "league" with the Canaanite locals. The verses are always listed, so you can double-check for context. In biblical times, blood was always involved. To the extent that a paycheck is painful to write but promotes life for the recipient, the word still works. In that same sense, I guess, cutting cards could be a painful pleasure between players.... Cut the deck...hit the deck...word power.

Cut from the team. In the KJV, the same word "is translated "cut off" when giving the consequences for violating the covenant, and also to what happens in a circumcision.... Pain was involved, sometimes death, temporal or eternal.

The bleeding edge. English translations tend to soften the explosive impact of the original Hebrew. But modern secularists have rediscovered the power of the pity phrase - so they revive or reinvent them. I think that's the seque from cutting covenant to being on the leading edge (of technology) to being on the bleeding edge. Some do say that if God didn't exist, mankind would have to invent him.


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