A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "cut to the chase"?

April 14, 2005

Dear Straight Dope:

Many authors in the past few years have written the phrase "cut to the chase" in their books. I assume that this is supposed to mean knock off the BS and get to the heart of the matter. I have read this phrase in so many books that it makes me doubt my memory of reading the phrase "cut thru the chaff," which, to me, means to knock off the BS and get to the heart of the matter. I feel that this is a more accurate way of saying let's get to the heart of the matter than is the "cut to the chase" phrase. Am I wrong or have current authors changed this phrase to suit themselves?

You're not the first person to mistake the origin, and that's why I thought I'd set the record straight. I could give you a long, convoluted explanation with a history of the phrase (it was first seen as a script direction in J.P. McEvoy's 1929 novel Hollywood Girl and entered general usage in the early 1980s) and tell you what a "cut" was in cinema jargon (from the literal action in celluloid days of cutting and splicing the film for a change of scene or viewpoint), which would trigger a reminiscence of Movies As They Used To Be (i.e., when they were made for the enjoyment of general audiences instead of a specific demographic and included plot and dialog as well as fun stuff like car chases), but that would be as boring as the endless wiretaps and stakeouts in The French Connection. (Fast forward to thirty-six minutes from the end or just watch that car insurance ad they're running because that's the best part.) Instead I'll cut to the chase and tell you that the phrase means to skip the dull bits and get to the part we all came to see. 

"Cut through the chaff," incidentally, is close to extinct, at least on the Internet. (Chaff refers to the husks left over after you thresh grain, and by extension anything worthless or trivial.) Google "cut through the chaff" and you'll get a piddling 575 hits, whereas "cut to the chase" turns up a robust 277,000. 

References

Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, Jonathon Green, 1998

The Maven's Word of the Day, July 30, 1997, by Jesse Sheidlower,  http://www.randomhou se.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19970730 

The Word Detective, Previous Columns/Posted 09/30/98, by Evan Morris,  http://www.word-detective.com/093098.ht ml

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