"Cut no ice": etymological hypothesis

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Thu May 7 04:02:36 UTC 2009

Why "cut no ice" = "have no significance/importance" or "fail to
impress"? Various notions have been presented, generally based on
characteristics of ice, cold, hard, etc. But suppose one looks instead
at the "cut no"? Then one will find that "cut no figure" was commonly
used earlier than "cut no ice", and with the same sense.

"Cut no figure" is (or was) transparent enough, the negation of "cut a
figure" = "be significant/important/impressive" which IIRC is recorded
from ca. 1700 in my poor-man's OED. I don't know that this "cut no
figure" is recognizable today in everyday speech, although I think "You
cut a fine figure" or "I cut a sorry figure" is still readily

"Cut no figure" = "have no significance" or so was routinely applied to
persons and also to objects and concepts in the 19th century. Here are
some examples; if one would like a few hundred more he need only use
Google Books.


1826: <<the absence of the Iron Mask, which certainly cuts no figure in
his narrative at all proportioned to its rank in history>>

1835: <<The province of Sirdhana cuts no figure in ancient story>>

1888: <<Whatever bad experience you and Dr. Smith may have had with
Judge Jones and Crazy Jane, cuts no figure with those who are
unprejudiced, and have fairly and rightly used you>>

1889: <<And the mere fact that I am alone cuts no figure with me>>

1889: <<What their grandfathers and grandmothers did cuts no figure with

1893: <<It was to show that a man's honesty cuts no figure with God>>

1896: <<That this tariff is denounced by the politicians of both
political parties cuts no figure with the American voter.>>

1897: <<Public clamor or public sentiment cut no figure with him in the
plain discharge of his public duties.>>


Compare "cut no ice", which I find from 1894:


1894: <<'Huh! w'at youse say cuts no ice wid me!' says I, scornful.>>

1895: <<Eloquence cut no ice at _that_ dinner!>>

1897: <<The question of wages cuts no ice in the Consumers' League>>


One can find (but only rarely) synonymous expressions along the lines of
"cut no figures", "cut no feature", "cut no pattern", "cut no cheese".

OK, that much is fact.

So why did "cut no ice" stand in for (and maybe even supplant)
synonymous "cut no figure"? Here is a hypothesis.

Just as "cut no figure" is opaque today, it may have been opaque to many
around 1890. Some might have taken "cut no figure" to mean "not cut any
figures" = "do no figure-skating". And surely "cut no ice" could mean
"do no skating", which is pretty close.


1888: [admiring a woman skating] <<'Gad!' he exclaimed admiringly, 'she
moves nicely, don't she? Bet your life she's cut ice before, and under a
good master too.'>>

1889: <<a crowd of youngsters, who skate round and round and cut figures>>

1899: <<because we have occasionally a fall on the ice, it does not
follow that we must not skate or even cut figures on the ice.>>


Here is the 'double-entendre' explicitly (there are other examples):


1879: <<Like a bold wench, resolved at any price / To cut a figure,
though it's but on ice.>>


"Cut no ice" may have begun either as a naive reinterpretation or a
deliberate humorous malapropism, I think.

Of course the above discussion covers related "cut some ice" etc.

Has such a hypothesis been presented before?

-- Doug Wilson

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list