Word Court


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Tom Ross, of Palo Alto, Calif., writes, “Would you please help settle a family dispute? People often say cut to the chase when they want the speaker to get to the heart of a topic. But my contention is that the correct usage is cut to the chaste. I believe that this phrase has its origins in 18th-century battleground surgery, in which a medic had to remove all contaminated tissue, or cut to the chaste tissue, to allow the patient’s wound to heal.”

Sorry, but the standard version is cut to the chase, not to the chaste—or the chaff, as some other people seem to think. (Still others think cut to the quick is synonymous, although it really means “wound deeply,” or they conflate two idiomatic phrases to get cut to the point, or—don’t get me started!) The expression comes from Hollywood, and it began as a director’s instruction to cut from relatively unexciting footage to a chase scene. According to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, the phrase chase scene has been part of movie terminology for a century (think cavalry and posses). The earliest citation given for cut to chase is from Hollywood Girl, a 1929 novel.

Only since the 1980s or thereabouts, though, has cut to the chase been used figuratively the way you describe. It might seem curious that such a recent expression has already spun off variants complete with backstories. But the backstories I’ve read, including yours, tend to be old-timey. This leads me to suspect that people came up with them because they couldn’t believe the standard expression is as modern as it is.

Rosalie Pfaff, of Colonia, N.J., writes, “I have recently finished reading a new biography of Beatrix Potter. It frequently mentions, in the sheep-farming portion of her life, fell farming, the fells, high fells, and so on. I assume the fells to be hills or rocky hill country. I have looked in several dictionaries and on the Internet for the word fell or fells, and no mention is made of this specific definition. Why is this meaning omitted?”

Keep reading, please.

Mark Melhado, of Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico, writes, “I’m losing about 15 minutes of sleep nightly because of the word rebar. I’ve checked several dictionaries, and they don’t mention the word. Exactly what does it mean?”

I have my problems with dictionaries, mostly on the grounds that they don’t do things their users have a right to expect, and they don’t even do everything they claim to. But you can’t expect, nor do dictionaries claim, that they’ll include every word that crops up—particularly if the dictionary doesn’t call itself unabridged. Respectable estimates of the number of distinct English words range from at least 250,000 to more than a million, whereas America’s best-selling dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, has a mere 165,000 entries. It seems to me that words for non-U.S. landforms and terms specific to the construction industry would be strong candidates for omission.

That said, fell in the relevant sense is defined in all four of the dictionaries installed on my computer’s hard drive, and rebar is defined in three of them. (Both words appear in the OED Online as well.) A fell is “a hill or stretch of high moorland, esp. in northern England,” in the words of the New Oxford American Dictionary, one of my favorites. And rebar means “a rod or bar used for reinforcement in concrete or asphalt pourings” or “a group of such rods forming a grid,” as The American Heritage Dictionary, my other favorite, defines it. My e-dictionaries are commercially available digitized versions of recent print dictionaries—not some special reference tool to which few have access. Since you both are obviously interested in words and their meanings, it’s time each of you invested in a new dictionary.

Do you have a language question or dispute? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic, P.O. Box 67375, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, or send e-mail to msgrammar@theatlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court. Ms. Grammar is also on the Web, at www.theatlantic.com/courtrecord.

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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