Sun, May 02, 2004 - Page 9 News List

`Cut and run' phrase enters political speech

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

"We're not going to cut and run," said President George W. Bush last month, "from the people who long for freedom."

The next day, John McCain asked rhetorically, "Is it the time to panic, to cut and run?" His answer, as you might expect, was, "Absolutely not."

And a week later, John Kerry used the derogation as a compound adjective: "I don't believe in a cut-and-run philosophy."

The phrase circles the English-speaking world. "If we cut and run," warned the British prime minister, Tony Blair, "their country would be at the mercy of warring groups." And from Down Under, the Australian prime minister, John Howard, answered a question about an "exit strategy" with "We don't have a cut-and-run strategy."

Paul Lacey of Richmond, Indiana, expressed the wonderment of many who e-mailed onlanguage@nytimes.com: "Doesn't it seem time to examine where cut and run comes from and why it has taken on the resonance it has? Why is it worse to cut and run?"

To paraphrase a favorite saying of US president John Kennedy's, advance has a thousand fathers but retreat is an orphan. Sometimes, when a retreat is justified, a euphemism is sought: The Union general George McClellan called his withdrawal from the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, after the Seven Days battles a "retrograde movement," and the modern military has come up with strategic withdrawal. Contrariwise, when a retreat is to be vilified, it is called a rout or a headlong flight, and critics of the disengagement deride the decision with the phrase cited so frequently above, to sever and skedaddle.

The phrase, imputing panic as in the McCain usage, is always pejorative. Nobody, not even those who urge leaders to "bring our troops home," will say, "I think we ought to cut and run." It is a phrase imputing cowardice, going beyond an honorable surrender, synonymous with bug out (probably coined in World War II but popularized in the Korean conflict); both are said in derogation of a policy to be opposed with the most severe repugnance.

Eleven years ago, as many in the US urged a pullout of US troops from Somalia, General Colin Powell said, "I don't think we should cut and run because things have gotten a little tough." After our hurried retrograde movement from that hostile environment, I provided readers with the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary: In 1704, The Boston News-Letter reported that "Capt. Vaughn rode by said Ship, but cut & run."

The nautical metaphor was defined in the 1794 Elements and Practice of Rigging and Seamanship as "to cut the cable and make sail instantly, without waiting to weigh anchor." In those days, the anchor cable was made of hemp and could be cut, allowing an escaping vessel to run before the wind.

Sailors extended the metaphor to fit other hasty, though not panicky, departures: Herman Melville, in his 1850 novel, White-Jacket," had a midshipman cry out, "Jack Chase cut and run!" about a buddy who ran away with a seductive lady. The poet Tennyson wrote to his wife, Emily, in 1864: "I dined at Gladstone's yesterday -- Duke and Duchess there ... but I can't abide the dinners .... I shall soon have to cut and run."

That lighthearted sense has since disappeared. Like the word quagmire, the phrase has gained an accusatory edge in politics and war.

VOGUE WORD WATCH

Some words move through the language like comets. Here are three spotted in the Vogue Word Watch:

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