Cutting and running: where does that originate?

If you cut and run you depart with very little ceremony. Don’t waste time explaining why you are leaving, just go! But where does the expression “cut and run” come from?

The answer is the days of sail, when sometimes it might be necessary for a sailing ship to make a hasty departure when riding at anchor. 

There are two possibilities as to what might be cut. The first concerns the sails that would be furled against the horizontal yards, of which there would be several to each mast on a square-rigged ship. The furls were held in place at intervals by cords that were tied by sailors who had the dangerous task of climbing out along the yards. To release the sails it was necessary to untie the cords, so maybe sailors in a hurry might have been tempted to cut them instead.

However, it might be wondered whether the amount of time saved would be all that great. The cords would have normally been fixed with quick-release knots or hitches that would only have required a simple tug to undo them. Not only that, but the cords would have been linked together so that one pull would have released all the cords on a yard. Cutting the cords would not have been any quicker.

The other possible candidate for cutting was the anchor rope. An anchor for a large sailing ship was extremely heavy, and the method of raising it from the seabed was to wind the anchor rope round a capstan, which was a horizontally mounted drum that could be turned by a group of sailors pushing on poles that were inserted into the top of the drum. Raising the anchor took a considerable amount of time and effort but was essential if the ship was going to be able to sail away. Cutting the rope was clearly going to be a lot quicker.

However, one can see that cutting and running was not something that a ship’s crew would do unless it was absolutely essential. If the sail ties were cut they would have to be re-knotted or replaced before the ship could refurl its sails, and if the ship did not carry a spare anchor it would face a huge problem at the end of its next journey.

Likewise, the modern version of cutting and running usually entails a sudden and unexpected event that calls for rapid action, possibly with little regard for the consequences.

What do you think?

4 points

Written by Indexer

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