Sunday, March 26, 2006

Sunday History Blogging (naval variant)

Cut and Run

This is a term which is now always used as a pejorative, (a description provided by William Safire).

But, it wasn't always that way.

The meaning dates back to the early 18th Century, the Royal Navy and the days of sail. According to The Elements and Practice of Rigging and Seamanship 1794, by David Steele, it involved the practice of cutting the anchor cable and making sail quickly, then running before the wind. In a later edition of the same book (1821), the definition took on a different process. It referred to the furling lashings on the yardarms as being cut to release the sails and get underway or gather speed quickly.

Added info: The Oxford Companion To The Sea 1976, edited by Peter Kemp states: an expression often thought to imply the cutting of a hemp cable with an axe, thus abandoning an anchor, when the ship needed to get quickly under way in an emergency. The more accurate origin of the saying was the custom of square-rigged ships, when at anchor in an open roadstead, of furling their sails with them stopped to the yards with ropeyarns, so the yarns could be cut and the sails let fall when the need to get underway quickly was urgent.

I have a tendency toward the Oxford's definition for two reasons: a) As a mariner I would be loath to leave an anchor behind. Further, given the anchorages of the 18th century, recovery was not as long a process as some might believe. Further, while cutting the cable might speed along release from ground tackle, it does not advance the setting of sail, which was a lengthy evolution in itself. b) Oxford's and Kemp have sourced their material thoroughly. Further, Peter Kemp has the distinction of having provided long service as Head of the Naval Historical Branch of the British Ministry of Defence.


The term, to cut and run in it's naval vernacular describes a tactic. Typically, the captain of a ship would order the anchor cable cut and sails made. The anchor cable was made of hemp and with some perseverence and a relatively sharp axe, could be severed. With enough sail made, a ship would run out of her anchorage having avoided some of the longer preparations required for getting underway.

The term was never derogatory when used in naval service. It simply referred to the speed at which a ship could sail in an urgent situation. In an 1801 action between a British squadron and French and Spanish squadrons at the Gut of Gibraltar, the ships were ordered to cut and run, turning toward and engaging the enemy. When ships did cut and run as a means of escape it usually meant they were outgunned and escape provided the ability to return and fight another day.

The meaning implied by recent political figures leans toward "cutting losses" and "running away", doing a disservice to the original meaning which in no way suggested an act of cowardice.

Trivia: Where does the term The devil to pay originate and what are the implications of having to pay the devil?

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