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How did the phrase "cut and dry" come to mean clearly decided or settled in advance? Sometimes referenced as "cut and dried". Also used when when referring to something that is ordinary.

If something is "cut and dry", it is said to be completed without debate, question, or argument.

Example: The rule about running near the pool was cut and dry, but the boy broke the rule and ran anyway.

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2 Answers 2

up vote 12 down vote accepted

The standard expression is cut and dried, though usages such as That's pretty cut and dry have started to appear more in recent decades, as this NGram shows.

It's a metaphoric reference to grass/hay/herbs/etc. being cut, dried, and thus ready for sale/use (nothing more needs to be done). By extension it comes to mean no more discussion needs to take place. By further extension, no decision or thought is required at all (the ordinary default suffices).

OP's example isn't a very appropriate one. Most people would say the rule was clear-cut (overt, explicit, unambiguous), not cut and dried (fully decided upon, finalised, settled).

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I've actually heard people use "that's pretty cut and dry" in spoken English. Of course, spoken English isn't always correct English. –  simchona Jul 19 '11 at 8:58
    
@simchona: You're right. Notwithstanding my comment to PPL's Answer, I'll amend mine to reflect this usage. –  FumbleFingers Jul 19 '11 at 14:49
    
"Cut and dry" is attested long before the 20th century. Swift used it! (He was filling out a rhyme though.) I see why you included "pretty," but I think it also produces skewed results. –  senderle Oct 24 at 21:35
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@simchona: And of course, there's the whole question of whether there is such a thing as "correct English." :-) –  T.J. Crowder Oct 25 at 14:15

The OED describes this usage as:

cut and dried (also cut and dry): originally referring to herbs in the herbalists' shops, as contrasted with growing herbs; hence, fig. ready-made and void of freshness and spontaneity; also, ready shaped according to a priori formal notions. (Usually of language, ideas, schemes or the like.)

(I think FumbleFingers’ description captures the current usage slightly better, though: fully settled, ready for use.)

The OED’s citations for cut and dried go back to 1710, and for …dry to 1730. Google Ngrams shows that …dried has been dominant at least for the last couple of centuries, although …dry has remained a consistent minority usage:

Google Ngrams: "cut and dried" vs. "cut and dry"

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Very few of the (already relatively uncommon) usages of cut and dry reported by NGram are figurative in any sense. They're mostly just the straight literal meaning. I do accept figurative cut and dry occurs, but it's a very "minority" usage. –  FumbleFingers Jul 19 '11 at 14:56
    
@FumbleFingers: in recent usage, that’s a good point (out of the top 20 Google books examples since 1954 for cut and dry, I count 8 literal, 8 figurative, 4 unclear, as opposed to 4/15/1 for cut and dried). In earlier usage, though, it seems to go the other way — with …dry more consistently figurative — although the sample size then is much smaller, so it’s not clear how meaningful that is. –  PLL Jul 20 '11 at 7:04

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