Cut and run

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Cut and run or cut-and-run is an idiomatic verb phrase meaning to "make off promptly" or to "hurry off". The phrase originated in the 1700s as describing an act allowing a ship to make sail quickly in an urgent situation, either by cutting free an anchor or by cutting ropeyarns to unfurl sails from the yards on a square rig ship. Though initially referring to a literal act, the phrase was used figuratively by the mid-1800s in both the United States and England. The phrase is used as a pejorative in political language, implying a panicked and cowardly retreat, and it has been used by politicians in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia as a criticism of calls to withdraw troops, becoming particularly associated with the United States Republican Party.


To "cut and run" was defined by Englishman David Steel in 1794 as "to cut the cable and make sail instantly, without waiting to weigh anchor".[1] He further described the practice as "quick but very expensive" but sometimes necessary, such as when the anchor is hooked on rocks and cannot be retrieved, in bad weather, when the anchor is on lee shore and the ship is in danger of embayment, or when one must quickly escape or pursue an enemy; instead of cutting the anchor by axe at the hawsehole, Steel offered an alternate method of slipping the anchor cable if time permitted, a method he felt wiser than cutting as it potentially prevented loss of anchor and cable.[2] An alternate origin comes from the practice on square rig ships to furl the sails stopped to the yards with ropeyarns so that the yarns may be cut to let the sails fall unfurled should an urgent need to sail arise.[3] The phrase was in use by the early 1700s, and Oxford English Dictionary cited the earliest printed usage of the phrase to The Boston News-Letter in 1704.[4]


Though "cut and run" initially referred to a literal act, the phrase later appeared in figurative usage in White-Jacket (1850) by American author Herman Melville and in Great Expectations (1861) by English author Charles Dickens.[4][5] Oxford English Dictionary defines the figurative, colloquial usage as "to make off promptly" or to "hurry off".[4]

In politics[edit]

In May 2004, William Safire in The New York Times noted that the phrase, when used in reference to politics and war, lost its "lighthearted sense" and came to become a pejorative implying panic and "cowardice, going beyond an honorable surrender" and is "said in derogation of a policy to be opposed with the utmost repugnance".[5] Dana Milbank characterized the phrase as a slogan used by members of United States Republican Party,[6][7] and in December 2015, Robert Entman identified the phrase as one of numerous memes or slogans that "trigger a series of instant, clear mental associations" lending to the "communicative success" of the Republican Party.[8] Linguist George Lakoff stated that the phrase is an example of the Republican Party's skill at "distilling an issue to a simple phrase" and analyzed the phrase as one that "presupposes that the opposite is to stand and fight".[9]

In the United States, the phrase saw usage by politicians as a criticism against calls to withdraw from the Lebanese Civil War,[10][11] Vietnam War,[12] and Iraq War.[13][14] It was also used in similarly in Australia in reference to the Iraq War[15] and the War in Afghanistan[16] and in Great Britain in reference to the Iraq War.[17] The phrase was also used during the 2016 Republican presidential debates by Jeb Bush to describe Marco Rubio in reference to the Gang of Eight and immigration reform.[18]

Variations on the phrase were used by Ken Mehlman, then Chairperson of the United States Republican National Committee, to describe the Democratic Party's call to withdraw troops from the Iraq War: "Some are saying we need to cut and run, others are saying we need to cut and jog, and still others are saying we need to cut and walk."[19]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ Steel 2011, p. 136.
  2. ^ Steel 2011, p. 70-71.
  3. ^ Kemp 1994, p. 221.
  4. ^ a b c "cut, v." Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1989. (subscription required)
  5. ^ a b Safire, William (May 2, 2004). "The Way We Live Now: 5-2-04: On Language; Cut and Run". The New York Times. Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  6. ^ Milbank, Dana (June 21, 2006). "It's Time to Cut and Run From 'Cut and Run'". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  7. ^ Pesca, Mike; Milbank, Dana (June 23, 2006). "Cut and Run". On the Media. WNYC. Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  8. ^ Entman, Robert (December 3, 2015). "Framing and party competition: How Democrats enabled the GOP's move to the uncompromising right" (PDF). Issues in Governance Studies. Brookings Institution (70). Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  9. ^ Williams, Joseph (June 21, 2006). "GOP wants 'cut and run' label to stick". The Boston Globe. Retrieved June 11, 2016 – via (subscription required)
  10. ^ "Interview: Caspar Weinberger". Frontline. PBS. September 2001. Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  11. ^ Kilpatrick, James (October 27, 1983). "Every choice a bad choice". The Daily Register. The alternative, in the short and ugly phrase, is to cut and run — to withdraw from the multinational peacekeeping force and to bring the Marines home. It is not an appealing alternative. Any such order would be interpreted universally as a pusillanimous act. It would be seen as a surrender to terrorists, and it would invite repetitions. The multinational force would be disbanded; diplomatic efforts at internal reconciliation would be set back; factional bloodshed would return. The result might be to carve up Lebanon and to serve most of it to Syria on a platter.
  12. ^ Herbert, Bob (December 15, 2005). "The Man Who Said No to War". The New York Times. Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  13. ^ Curry, Tom (December 3, 2003). "Kerry warns of 'cut and run' in Iraq". NBC News. Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  14. ^ Fletcher, Michael (September 29, 2006). "Bush Attacks Party of 'Cut and Run'". Washington Post. Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  15. ^ Yaxley, Louise (March 25, 2004). "Cut-and-run or needed exit strategy: Parliament argues over troops". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  16. ^ Wroe, David (October 21, 2015). "Don't cut and run from Afghanistan, warns Defence chief Mark Binskin". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  17. ^ Wintour, Patrick (April 11, 2004). "Defeat would be victory for fanatics, says Blair". The Guardian. Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  18. ^ "Transcript of the Main Republican Presidential Debate". The New York Times. January 28, 2016. Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  19. ^ The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer (Television production). CNN. June 20, 2006. Retrieved June 11, 2016.


  • Kemp, Peter, ed. (February 24, 1994). The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea (Reprint ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0192820846.
  • Steel, David (May 19, 2011) [First published 1794]. The Elements and Practice of Rigging, Seamanship, and Naval Tactics. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1108026543.