cut a check
Posted: 18 June 2013 09:20 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Could anyone here offer insight into why we use the word “cut” in the phrase “cut a check”? It’s not like we use scissors to make payment.

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Posted: 18 June 2013 09:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The Phrase Finder has you covered on this one.

Cut a Check

“I used to work in a bank (savings and loan, actually, from 1979-1983) and one of my functions was to “cut a check” when necessary. We had a check-cutting machine that would not only stamp the amount onto the check and two carbon copies, but would simultaneously “cut” vertical lines while printing the amount onto the top copy. That made it impossible to alter the amount because of the cuts, or perforations, really, in the check. These days checks are printed by laser printers, and no longer cut.”

As a related aside… I once worked in a sporting goods shop across the street from an enclave of very wealthy people and one of them once came in the store and bought several thousand dollars worth of equipment and asked for a blank piece of paper. He wrote out a “check” by hand and since the owner of the store knew him, we accepted it. The bank cashed it without question.

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Posted: 18 June 2013 10:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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The earliest citation I can find for cut a check is actually from Safire’s NYT ”On Language” column from 24 May 1981. Safire writes:

Recording engineers, accustomed to “cutting records” (from a lathe cutting a groove in lacquer), use the verb “to cut” metaphorically. Reports Mr. Howarth: “I will ask the comptroller to cut a check for the amount necessary.” Similarly, military and naval types will recall the cutting of orders, which probably stemmed from cutting a stencil.

That sense of “cut” could be applied to a deal: “I think it goes back to the graphic arts,” suggests Thomas Turley of Harrison, N.Y. “When copy was finally decided upon, it was cut into a metal plate either mechanically or by chemical action. The product of this effort was known as a ‘cut’ as was the process itself, ‘to cut a plate.’ In that sense, ‘cut a deal’ means reducing a contractual exchange to fixed terms, written or otherwise.”

[...]

My vote goes to coinage by the record industry, although I’m willing to sit with anyone and do an etymology based on other specific citations.

[I didn’t bother to type out Safire’s blathering about a possible origin relating to circumcision which he includes only in order to make a bad pun about “going the extra mohel."]

The OED records the recording industry usage of cut from 1937.

Unless significantly earlier citations for cut a check are found, my bet would be that it comes from the stencil usage and the military “cut an order.” Safire’s 1981 notice of the term points to a coinage for cut check some ten or twenty years earlier, which would be at the height of the cold war when there were many in professional life who had served in the military. That, plus influence from the recording industry, would have given “cut” a sense of to make.

[ Edited: 18 June 2013 10:49 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 19 June 2013 05:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Cowmen have been “cutting” cattle out of the herd for ages.  I always assumed “cut a check” came out of this sense.

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Posted: 19 June 2013 06:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I guess Safire never heard of Paymaster check writers that literally cut into the paper and were a common fixture in offices since the 50’s. I’m sure the metaphorical usages helped, but I don’t think it’s warranted to completely overlook the literal usage.

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Posted: 19 June 2013 07:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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As usual, much depends on the citations. My search, which admittedly was not all that extensive, failed to turn up any instance of “cut a check” prior to Safire’s article. (Although the term was clearly in rather wide use by then.) That really surprised me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a more determined search comes up with much older cites. (I looked at Google Books and all the Proquest Historical Newspapers that U of T subscribes to. But beware of electronic searches that don’t show the full text. I found several 19th century hits for “cut a check” that turned out to be “made out a check,” with the “o” in “out” mistaken for a “c” by OCR software.)

Do we have examples of “cut a check” used in reference to checkwriting machines? I haven’t found any. The machines have been around since the 1870s, but the phrase doesn’t pop up for another hundred years.

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Posted: 19 June 2013 09:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Google Book Search brings up several 1970s instances of the phrase cut a deal but nothing earlier that I can find. Are the two phrases connected? Did one stem from the other? Hard to say without knowing which is the earlier, of course.

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Posted: 19 June 2013 10:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Do we have examples of “cut a check” used in reference to checkwriting machines?

Do we have it used in reference to any other proposed etymology? What you quoted from Safire is speculation and as long as we’re guessing, the machines are as likely a source as any other and since they relate directly to the process, I think they at least deserve consideration.

The expression “cutting a record” comes from the act of cutting something. The expression “cutting orders” comes from the act of cutting something. Since checks can also be literally cut, it makes perfect sense to at least consider that process as influencing the expression. I don’t see that Safire is considering the process.

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Posted: 19 June 2013 12:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Oh, it’s definitely in the mix. It’s all speculation at this point. [And you could fill volumes with the stuff that Safire didn’t know but chose to write about anyway.]

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Posted: 20 June 2013 01:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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This appears to be an expression not found in BrE at all: at least my search in three British corpuses failed to find any examples of “cut a cheque”. Nor did Britons, afaik, ever go in for “cutting” cheques to ensure the sums written on them could not be altered.

Not that we use cheques much in the UK today: many shops won’t actually accept them any more, and haven’t for several years, because debit cards are (a) almost universal (b) much cheaper for both the stores and the customer and (c) less liable to fraud. Utility bills can be paid electronically via internet banking; memberships of organisations are paid for via direct debit; and even for freelances, most payments these days are via the BACS system (originally Bankers’ Automated Clearing Services), which generally means same-day or next-day payment: no more waiting for the cheque to clear. I probably now write no more than three cheques a year.

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