Q&A: Origin of ‘cut to the chase’

Origin of cut to the chase

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, cutting and chasing…

Q: Hi AWC, where does the phrase “cut to the chase” come from?

A: Good question.

Q: Thanks, it’s what I do.

A: First, let’s take a look at the meaning…

Q: Ugh, cut to the chase will you!

A: Haha, well illustrated. Macquarie Dictionary describes the phrase as “to address the most important issue immediately, without preliminary small talk; get to the point.”

Q: That’s it – get to the point!

A: The term actually has nothing to do with cutting with a knife – it relates to films.

Q: Oh, like when the director yells “CUT!”

A: Almost. More likely to relate to the editing process. It originated 100 years ago in the early days of cinema – when silent films were still the big thing.

Q: It was such a different time back then. People only wore grey clothes and communicated exclusively by raising their eyebrows or wiggling their moustaches.

A: Uh huh. So anyway, many comedy silent films had a formula – usually some kind of romantic story that would end with a big chase sequence.

Q: I think I can see where this is going.

A: Yep. Often the build up and dialogue – shown on screen as title cards – would go on for way too long, when all the audience really wanted was the fun chase scene at the end. Charlie Chaplin built his career on these kinds of silly and elaborate chases.

Q: Chase scenes ARE fun. Although I suspect silent film chases were less “The Fast and the Furious” and more “The Slow and the Mildly Annoyed”…

A: Something like that. In 1929, the phrase was first seen in print – used in a novel to describe a script direction: “Jannings escapes. Cut to chase.”

Q: So essentially it’s an editing note to cut to the action-heavy chase scene of the film?

A: Correct. Film producers of the day reportedly said “cut to the chase” a lot while films were being edited.

Q: Less chat, more splat.

A: Exactly.

Q: I suppose a chase scene would be the most exciting scene in a silent film.

A: Indeed. It was even taught throughout the 1930s to budding screenwriters, with teachers imparting, “When in doubt, cut to the chase!”

Q: So that’s movies. But when did it spill out of the theatre and come to be used for everything else?

A: According to the Internet, the first recorded use of “cut to the chase” in a figurative sense was in a Massachusetts newspaper in 1947.

Q: What was the context?

A: The article reported, “Let’s cut to the chase. There will be no tax relief this year.”

Q: Were taxes high?

A: The highest tax bracket paid 86% tax in 1947 – so yes, very high!

Q: Ouch. That cuts deep.

A: By the way, a phrase with a similar meaning, “Cut to Hecuba”, was used even earlier – by directors of late 19th–early 20th century matinees when they felt the show was running too long and the audience were getting bored.

Q: Who or what is Hecuba?

A: She was a queen in Greek mythology – and referenced in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The phrase died out, never making it to green pastures of figurative use, while “cut to the chase” lives on today.

Q: What about “cut to the quick”? I’ve also heard that used. Does it mean the same thing?

A: Not at all. To “cut someone to the quick” means to hurt someone emotionally – with words or actions. Upsetting them with something sensitive.

Q: Is it related to the sensitive “quick” on your fingernails?

A: No, it has nothing to do with the hyponychium – or “quick” – found beneath your nails. The “quick” in question is an archaic term for “living” and it’s use here essentially means cutting through dead stuff to get to something sensitive. The same meaning exists in the phrase, “The quick and the dead”.

Q: Well, I think we might have rambled on enough for one day. The audience wants to get to the exciting final chase scene now.

A: Fair enough. Let’s cut and run…

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