Look at the cut of this Irish expression

Growing up in rural Ireland, I regularly heard – and still occasionally hear – some version of the phrase the cut of someone. It’s an informal idiom that means the state or appearance of someone and usually incorporates criticism or amusement or both. Here’s an example I just read in Deirdre Madden’s novel Nothing Is Black:

‘Look at the cut of me!’ Claire’s mother had said the last time she’d visited her. She’d been sitting by a mirror, combing out her faded hair. ‘I’m as grey as a badger. How come I look so old, yet I feel no different to what I was forty years ago? Where’s the sense in that?’ She’d started to laugh …

In Irish literature the expression is generally found in dialogue or in vernacular narrative. Madden’s example is typical in a few ways: it’s light-hearted, colloquial, and deprecatory – in this case self-deprecatory. In a similar vein, the next two examples involve mirrors. Marian Keyes, Anybody Out There:

She got a little compact from her bag, then held the mirror between her legs, but couldn’t see over her bump.

‘Feck.’ Then she looked at her face. ‘Look at the cut of me, I’m all red and shiny.’

She combed her hair, refreshed her lipstick and powdered her red cheeks. ‘Who knew labour was so unflattering?’

Martha Long, Run, Lily, Run:

‘Oh would you look at the cut of me?! The hair is nearly gone from me head it’s tha thin, an Jesus! Would ye look at the grey?!’

Self-referral is far from the only way of using it. Here’s third-person reference, in Seán Ó Faoláin’s Collected Stories:

When he got home his father rushed at him and shouted at him to know where the blazes he had been, and his mother was crying, but when they saw the cut of him they stopped. His mummy and the maid got a hot bath ready for him …

And second-person reference in Pauline McLynn’s The Woman on the Bus:

‘Ah, Tom,’ her mother was saying. ‘Would you look at the cut of you. Clean yourself up till we have a meal in reasonable peace and quiet.’

(This use of till, meaning ‘so that’ or ‘in order that’, is another feature of Irish English.)

The cut of X often indicates old or scruffy appearance, but it can involve looking smart if that’s somehow inappropriate or perceived as comical. Margaret Dunlop, Water for Tea:

I looked in disgust at my good suit hanging on the wardrobe door. I hated every inch of it from the box pleated skirt to the double-breasted jacket with the big buttons. I was thankful none of the girls from town attended our chapel. They’d get the quare laugh at the cut of me in it. Mammy said the blue pure wool cloth was very dear and Miss Pedan was the best dressmaker in the country.

Syntactically the phrase often follows some form of look, see, or know. Sometimes it’s framed in a rhetorical conditional (‘Would you look at the cut of me’) or abridged to its bare exclamatory form (‘The cut of him!’). Cut can also suggest nature as well as appearance. John Boyne, A History of Loneliness:

I was used to lads his age, I’d worked with them for years. They didn’t scare or intimidate me. I knew the cut of them, I knew the smell of them. There was nothing they could say that could shock or embarrass me, no matter how hard they tried.

And it can entail someone’s funny or absurd situation, as in Jan Carson’s short story ‘We’ve Got Each Other and That’s a Lot’:

We spend a lot of time waiting in the car with the heaters off. It is colder behind the glass than outside. I can see my breath curling over my parents’ heads in whispers. My Mammy used to laugh at this and say, ‘look at the cut of us, like fire-breathing dragons.’

It can be neutral in tone, with no pejorative intent. Paul Lynch, Red Sky in Morning:

And then Gillen saw Coyle coming towards him, the man with his hands in his pockets and his hat and head down low but he knew the cut of him, watched him push through the crowd, the man not lifting his head and making towards the gangway …

The tone can even be admiring, or the criticism more oblique, as in Donal Ryan’s The Thing About December:

They were touring Europe, thank you very much (the cut of them, Mother said, that fella hadn’t a seat in his pants growing up and he’s going around now touring Europe for himself! …)

But it’s more usually negative. And, I should mention, it doesn’t always refer to people. John B. Keane, Love Bites and Other Stories:

Haven’t you seen the cut of stray tomcats returning from forays into strange, moonlit territories? Scratched and bleeding they have paid the price for seductive meeowing in the principalities of other cats.

The phrase doesn’t seem to be too widely documented, but it shows up in some slang and specialist dictionaries. The 2004 New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Dalzell and Victor eds.) defines this cut as ‘someone’s appearance’, labels it Irish, and notes its usually derogatory use.

Bernard Share’s Slanguage: A Dictionary of Irish Slang and Colloquial English in Ireland concurs and says it comes from the expression ‘cut a (fine, poor, etc.) figure, c.1760–’. Maybe. Or it could have come from the cut of one’s jib, which the OED lists as sense III.17(c) of cut (n.) and defines as ‘one’s general appearance or look’.

The cut of one’s jib has nautical origins – a jib is a type of sail – and is a couple of centuries old. It’s an offshoot of OED sense III.17(a) ‘the shape to which, or style in which a thing is cut; fashion, shape (of clothes, hair, etc.)’ – as in hair-cut. This matches sense 19 (of 21) in Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary: ‘The shape or fashion to which a thing is cut; figure, bearing; mark’.

And that’s the cut of the cut of X.

You can browse the archive for more Irish English dialect features.

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9 Responses to Look at the cut of this Irish expression

  1. I thought speaking of the cut of one’s jib is common enough in the United States that many Americans probably would generally know what it meant. When I’ve heard it used, it often has a sense of lighthearted humor. And I’m been familiar with the idiom for as long as I can remember.

    The family is gathered today for my brother’s birthday. I decided to ask my niece. She is in high school and well read, although I suspected she wouldn’t know. It turns not only did she not know it but neither did my brothers or my mother. My father did know it and also said he has known if for a long time. He is also well read as I am and so maybe it’s less common in the general public than I realized.

    I’m not sure which specific immigrant population brought it here. But of course, there are more Irish-Americans than there are Irish nationals because of the 19th century mass emigration, most of them ending up in North America. Irish culture did have quite a bit of influence here. Tap dancing, for example, was a mix of Irish and African dance styles because of the to populations living in the same neighborhood in New York City.

    Anyway, it’s an interesting turn of phrase. I can’t say I ever think to use it. Maybe that is a good thing since I’m not sure who would understand it. I’m reminded of cattywampus which my mother does use, her family being from the upper American South where though it has an English origin got mixed up with Native American language. To say the cut of one’s jib was cattywampus wouldn’t be a compliment.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Cut of one’s jib strikes me as a phrase more known than used: many people would understand it in context without ever adopting it for their own use (or without, for that matter, knowing its literal meaning). I use it sometimes, but less often than the Irish English the cut of someone.

      It doesn’t have very many hits in COCA (8) or COHA (14), and none in the BNC, but GloWbe returns 53, concentrated in UK, US, and Australian and New Zealand English:

  2. bevrowe says:

    I have just carried out some “fieldwork” with our cleaner, who grew up in rural Mayo. She was quite familiar with the phrase and recognised it as Irish. (She has lived in London for over forty years but still says “bring” when I would say “take”.)

    The jib phrase is interesting: It’s so specifically nautical and has generated no more general usage. So I wonder if it’s related to the Irish usage at all, which seems more like OED meaning 17b of cut.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Rural Mayo is where I grew up too. I don’t know exactly how the phrase is distributed around Ireland, but my guess is that it has modest currency throughout.

      It’s quite possible there’s no direct connection between Irish English the cut of someone and general English the cut of someone’s jib. Nautical jib is curiously restricted in use, as you say, though it shows up in another slang expression: hang one’s jib ‘look miserable’.

  3. Neil O'Leary says:

    A good chance this is derived from the Irish word “cruth” meaning shape, appearance or condition. In Munster dialects it would be pronounced “crut” (no silent “th”), so it would not have taken much for it to morph into “cut” in Hiberno-English.

    I heard it used more concretely in this way by Effin Eddie Moroney in his famous commentary of a Tipperary club football match. Saying that a player was lacklustre, he pronounced there was “no crut to him”

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s an interesting alternative, Neil. I hadn’t thought of the Irish loan-word angle, though I’ve written about other cases of just that process. Cruth is evidently used in quite a few Irish phrases, and I’ll take your word for it about the Munster dialect pronunciation (though the audio files on Foclóir.ie have a silent final consonant). How likely it is to be the source of the cut of someone, I don’t know.

  4. Roger says:

    Comparable, perhaps: A news documentary about the Gambino family boss John Gotti included an observation by a smartly-dressed African-American who admired Gotti and who said of Gotti’s tailoring and his manner of presenting himself to the world, “I like the way he carries himself”.

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