Dallas, TX –
It's interesting that the nautical expression "cut and run" should now be tied to such a dry and dusty place as Iraq. The expression was born at sea at least as early as the 1700s and by the mid-1800s became a metaphor for turning tail in the face of difficulty.
If, in those seagoing days, a large and unfriendly ship sailed toward a smaller ship, the captain of the smaller ship might decide to cut the lashings on the sails and the anchor cable if necessary and run before the wind.
Cut and run means, in other words, let's get outta here! You don't take time to unlash or untie, you just scram.
The seafaring world was a world of colorful slang that gave birth to many common expressions. We might guess, for example, that "three sheets to the wind" is a nautical term even without knowing its original meaning. The sheets were lines that controlled tension in the sails and if the sheets were loose, the sails would flap ineffectively. A three-masted ship that had "three sheets to the wind" would meander aimlessly which is reflected in the modern meaning of drunkenness.
Other expressions from the nautical world are more obvious "knowing the ropes," for example, or "taking the wind out of his sails," or "down the hatch."
But "pipe down"? The "bitter end"? "Leeway" and "windfall"? Those were also born at sea.
The last signal of the day from the Bosun's pipe, or whistle, was called the "Pipe Down." The Pipe Down signal meant lights out, stop talking, be quiet.
The expression "bitter end" referred to the end of the anchor cable, which was fastened to the ship's bow with devices called bitts. When all of the cable was played out, it was said to be at the bitts or at the "bitter end." Being at the bitts did not bode well if you needed more cable hence today's sense of something coming not only to an end, but to a bitter end.
"Leeway" and "windfall" are interestingly related. The ship's lee side is away from the wind, and the lee shore is downwind. So if the ship doesn't have enough leeway that is, room on the lee side the wind could drive the ship onto the shore. A windfall is a sudden rush of wind from the lee shore that pushes the ship and creates more leeway.
Today, leeway still means room to maneuver, and windfall an unforeseen bonus.
"Not enough room to swing a cat" seems a curious expression unless you know its nautical beginnings. The cat in this case is the cat o' nine tails, a whip used to flog wayward sailors. The crew, required to witness the flogging, often crowded around and made it difficult to swing the cat.
If you see someone letting that kind of cat out of the bag, maybe you'd better just...cut and run.
Paula LaRocque is the author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well.
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