Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

On the Cutting of Breaks

Posted by Neal on August 14, 2005

Today I read about a group of high-school kids in Pennsylvania who are facing felony charges for repeatedly circumventing various safeguards and barriers in order to use their school-issued laptop computers inappropriately. They’ve now put up a website where they present their side of the story, a main point of which seems to be that their bad behaviour is the school’s fault, since the administrators did not make it sufficiently difficult to hack the system. The linguistically interesting part is the name of the students’ website: CutUsABreak.org.

Cut them a break? I didn’t know you could do that. I thought you could give someone a break, but that if any cutting was to be done, it would be a cutting of slack. It looks like I was wrong, though; a Google search for “cut * a break” yields plenty of hits. Now you can mix or match, as you please:

Choose 1:Choose 1:
givea break
cutsome slack

I have now filed cut me a break along with

  • it’s not rocket surgery
  • the way the cookie bounces
  • back to day go
  • under the eight ball
  • my significant half
  • looking for fresh blood

in my list of idiom blends.

(BTW, if you want to read the school’s side of the “Cut Us a Break” story, you can find it here.)

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6 Responses to “On the Cutting of Breaks”

  1. A DJ could cut a break, but in a very different context.

    “Cut” means to scratch, cue, or otherwise creatively play part of a vinyl record.

    A “break” is a drum break or “breakbeat” or essentially a loopable portion of percussion.

    I’m curious if you found this usage in your searching.

  2. Ben Zimmer said

    I’d guess that this is just a regional variant of “give (someone) a break” rather than an idiom blend. I’ve posted a query to the American Dialect Society mailing list here.

    (Also, is it 2006 already? My, how time flies!)

  3. My favorite of these, from a Chinese former co-worker of my wife’s: “I have other fish to boil.” This man also said, in connection with being in trouble, “We in hot soup.”

  4. Neal said

    Grant and Ben: Thanks for the additional information on “cut * a break.” Thanks for doing the ADS posting, Ben. I’ll watch the list to see what people there have to say.

  5. Anonymous said

    One I’ve heard, although it was said on purpose, is “beaten like a red-headed mule.”

  6. [...] of them even allow variation in the choice of words they contain; for example give me a break and cut me a break. But their existence makes a language inhospitable to similar chunks with similar meanings but with [...]

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