The Word Guy: Credit Hollywood for phrase 'cut to the chase'

| Friday, Aug. 23, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

Question: My wife constantly is telling me to “cut to the chase.” To what chase is she referring? It might help me to cut to it, if I knew where it were.

— Fred Richards, via email

Answer: That's funny; most wives tell their husbands to cut out the chase.

The producers and directors who made early Hollywood Westerns quickly learned that audiences became bored with the mundane scenes necessary to establish a movie's characters, setting and plot — you know, cowboys riding the range, washing up in the horse trough, and sitting around the campfire.

What moviegoers craved was the final chase scene depicting good guys on horseback furiously pursuing the mounted bad guys. Thundering hooves!

“Giddyaps!” Wagon wheels spinning in reverse, thanks to film technology!

So, when the Western was being edited or “cut,” film editors were told not to linger too long on preliminary scenes before they “cut to the chase” — spliced in the climactic pursuit.

Filmmakers apparently were using the term by the end of the 1920s. A 1929 novel by screenwriter J. P. McEvoy, for instance, refers to a movie script with the repeated notation “cut to chase.”

Oddly enough, it wasn't till the 1980s that “cut to the chase” became a general term meaning “Get to the point!” By then, come to think of it, we had a former Hollywood cowboy as president. Hmmm ...

Let's chase the origins of two more “cut” phrases:

• Cuts no ice: During the 19th and early 20th centuries, when ice was needed for refrigeration, crews used large, rough-tooth handsaws to cut big blocks of ice from frozen ponds.

It was hard, cold work, so workers would retreat periodically to a campfire (and maybe even to a flask) to warm themselves. Their bosses, eager for the men to get back to work, would remind them — in the most genteel terms, no doubt — that these breaks “cut no ice.” So, today we still say that something ineffectual “cuts no ice.”

• Cut the mustard: The origin of this term meaning, “to meet required standards” is uncertain. So, let's cut to the chase and provide the most persuasive explanation: During the late 1800s, an era when just about any concoction could be labeled “mustard,” American cowboys (yes, them again) craved the genuine article, which they dubbed “the proper mustard.” Soon, anything that reached a high standard was said “to cut (achieve) the mustard.”

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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