Cut us a break!

Thu Aug 25 14:24:27 UTC 2005

        I'm not sure how long ago people were talking about cutting
checks, but it's certainly much older than 1980.  I associate the term
with businesses and governmental agencies that use check-writing
machines; I always supposed the term had something to do with the
stamping, embossing, or perforation process previously (and sometimes
still) used by those machines, though the exact connection was unclear
to me.  Here's a use from 1951:  "Her duties consisted of typing the
payroll, cutting payroll checks, sorting payroll vouchers, making
entries in certain books and similar activities of a general clerical
nature."  Schnipper v. North Bergen Township, 80 A.2d 118, 120 (N.J.
Super. Ct. App. Div. 1951).

        In support of the perforation theory, see this case from 1892:
"This is a bill in equity, charging defendant with the infringement of a
patent No. 401,871, granted April 23, 1889, to Edwin O. Abbott, for a
'check protector.' The patent in question shows a device for cutting or
punching letters, figures, or signs into paper, and its main use is for
so cutting or perforating into bank checks or drafts the figures
denoting the amount for which the check or draft is drawn, thereby
giving an additional security against an alteration of the check."
Abbott Machine Co. v. Bonn, 51 F. 223, 223 (C.C.N.D. Ill. 1892).

        It seems to be a remarkably common phenomenon that phrases come
into common use only after their genesis is no longer apparent.  While
"cut a check" goes back at least to 1951, and perhaps decades earlier,
it seems to be less common until about 1980, by which time the
perforation process was no longer in widespread use, having been largely
superseded by stamping and embossing processes.

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf
Of Benjamin Zimmer
Sent: Thursday, August 25, 2005 12:38 AM
Subject: Re: Cut us a break!

On Wed, 24 Aug 2005 23:58:16 -0400, Wilson Gray wrote:

>On 8/19/05, Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at> wrote:
>> As for "cut (someone) a check", that's a much more recent usage (c.
>> 1980).
>Is it really the case that "cut a check" can't be documented any
>earlier than 1980? <rhetorical question> That is absolutely amazing! I
>may be - well,probably am - alone in this, but I've always considered
>this "cut" to be the same as the verb "cut" defined under 10  in HDAS
>p.545a, dating back to WWII. I haven't heard anyone speak of "cutting a

>check" since the '60's. Had anyone asked me - fortunately, no one has,
>sparing me embarrassment, no doubt - I would have said that "cut a
>check" is a bit of business jargon that fell out of use years before
>the '80's.

See the alt.usage.english thread from last year that I mentioned:

At the time we were unable to find any use of "cut a check" in the
relative sense before a Safire "On Language" column from May 24, 1981.
(The literal "cutting" of checks, as from a checkbook, dates back to the
19th century.) As for ditransitive "cut (someone) a check", the earliest
I found was also from 1981:

        Wall Street Journal, Jul 28, 1981, p. 3
        "I'm staying with Seagram because they'll cut me
        a check next Monday morning and I'll have the
        cash Tuesday.  Then I'll probably buy some more
        Conoco and tender it to Du Pont," said one
        professional speculator.

Checking the databases now, I don't see any antedatings offhand. The
'80s usage could of course be a revival from the '60s or earlier, but I
have yet to see any evidence for that.

--Ben Zimmer

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