Q: I saw the expression “cut and dry” the other day on the legal scholar Jonathan Turley’s blog. I had always thought it was “cut and dried,” a distinction I learned by a correction in a high school biology paper—in 1961, as I recall. Any thoughts about this?
A: The expression as it first appeared in the mid-17th century was “cut and dried.” But the other version, “cut and dry,” was also used early on, and it’s not incorrect. Most standard dictionaries accept both forms, giving “cut and dry” as a variant or less common version.
To say that something is “cut and dried”—a decision, speech, proposal, etc.—means that it’s been decided or settled in advance. Some dictionaries add that it can mean clear and unambiguous.
The phrasal adjective is figurative, but it was adapted from a literal notion: herbs already harvested, dried, and prepared for sale in herbalists’ shops, “as contrasted,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, “with growing herbs.”
Thus, the dictionary defines the figurative “cut and dried (also cut and dry)” as “ready-made and void of freshness and spontaneity,” or “ready shaped according to a priori formal notions.” The phrase is used mostly in reference to “language, ideas, schemes or the like,” the OED adds.
The dictionary’s examples begin in the early 18th century, but in searches of historic databases we found earlier ones from the mid- to late 17th century. The oldest examples are preceded by “ready,” and some use “dried” (spelled various ways) while some use “dry.”
The two oldest we’ve found appear in the same pamphlet (note how the author is careful to define his meaning):
“I being informed of their Intentions or Determinations before, I made this Reply to them, I did know that it was ready cut and dryed; my meaning was, that it was ready done to their hands.” He repeats the expression later in italics: “I soberly answered, It was ready cut and dryed; that is, to speak after the smilitude, it was ready done to their hands.” From “The Cause of the Innocent Pleaded, His Accusers Pretended Charge Confvted,” by Samuel Bradley (1664).
We’ve found several more in pamphlets and books of the later 1600s:
“a Catholick Answer ready cut and dried to all Indictments drawn up against them” (“The Tragical History of Jetzer,” by Sir William Waller, 1679).
“those Informations, which they kept ready cut and dryed for service upon all occasions” (“An Exact and Faithful Narrative of the Horrid Conspiracy [etc.],” by Titus Oates; written April 1679, published 1680).
“the whole Scheme of the Project ready cut and dry’d” (“The Character of a Papist in Masquerade,” by Sir Roger L’Estrange, 1681).
“the Excuses which I had always ready cut and dry’d” (A Late Voyage to Constantinople, John Philips’s translation from the French of Guillaume-Joseph Grelot, 1683).
“presented unto the Council ready cut and dry” (The History of the Eucharist, John Walker’s translation from the French of Matthieu de L’Arroque, 1684).
The OED’s first citation is dated 1710: “Your Sermon was ready Cut and Dry’d” (Letter to Sacheverell, a poem by Joseph Addison, pseudonymously signed “J.B.”).
As we mentioned above, “cut and dried” is more common than “cut and dry,” a preference that’s demonstrated by a comparison on Google’s Ngram viewer.
Why does “cut and dry” persist? It may have been reinforced in the early 18th century, when smokers began referring to tobacco as “cut and dry.” As the OED says, “cut and dry” was a noun phrase used elliptically to mean “cut and dried tobacco.”
The dictionary’s earliest example of the phrasal noun is from a letter written to Jonathan Swift by his good friend Dr. John Arbuthnot (Jan. 30, 1718). The OED quotes only a line of Arbuthnot’s letter, but we think his anecdote is entertaining enough to quote in its entirety:
I knew a pretty young Girl in a Country Village, who, over-fond of her own Praise, became a Property to a poor Rogue in the Parish, who was ignorant of all Things but Fawning. This Fellow us’d to wait on Mrs. Betty every Morning, and she being a Shopkeeper, his usual Salutation was, Lord love your Heart, Mrs. Betty, you be main handsome, will you give me a Pipe of Tobacco? Am I, Isaac? (answers Mrs. Betty) let me see your Box; and then she fills it. Thus Isaac extolls her out of a Quartern of Cut and Dry every Day she lives; and tho’ the young Woman is really handsome, she and her Beauty are become a By-word, and, all the Country round, she is call’d nothing but Isaac’s Best Virginia.”