Where did the phrases "a cut above the rest" and "a cut below the rest" come from? I'm supposing they came from the same source. I feel it something very obvious, but I don't know what.
The derivation offered by Robusto is plausible; but I think he’s been misled by his source, which jumps to an insupportable conclusion.
That source, the Random House ‘Word of the Day’ page, depends for its definitions and all but one of its citations on OED 1, sv Cut sb.2. But OED doesn’t “derive” the phrase from the sense ‘shape’ or ‘style’; it classifies it under the same branch III as a different sense, thus:
OED does not specify why it associates senses 16 and 17; and I have been able to find very little to link them. I've run Google Books searches for the years 1600-1799 on higher cut and lower cut and superior cut and inferior cut and even better cut, and found only this, from Maty’s 1787 translation of Riesbeck’s Travels Through Germany, in a passage about the Emperor's attention to military detail: “[he] writes to the taylor and shoemaker of the army to give the clothes a better cut and the shoes a better slit”. This is clearly a matter more of field quality than of fashion.
What I have found, however, may be relevant. To begin with, there are several OED citations which the Random House passage overlooks. The most remarkable is the first under sense 17, our phrase:
This version of the phrase has a fifty-year history behind it:
The earliest instance of the phrase I have found comes from
This older version of the phrase survives into the 1820s:
But the modern version emerges in the 1790s:
Sir Walter Scott uses the modern version frequently. OED provides a citation in dialect, from The Heart of Midlothian (1818): “Robinson is rather a cut abune me.” In a letter sometime after 1811 (Google’s ‘snippet’ view prevents me from pinning it down more precisely) Scott writes a friend that “… after paying duty and carriage you have wine of the very first quality much cheaper than any you can get from a merchant in London. The hocks are a cut above me: Johannesberg Ansbruch is fifteen and sixteen shillings if of the vintage 1811.” In The Fortunes of Nigel (1822), he rejects advice to publish “a volume of dramas like Lord Byron’s”: “No ; his lordship is a cut above me—I won’t run my horse against his if I can help myself.” And in his St. Ronan’s Well (1823), a character contrasts himself with a rival: “Confound the fellow—he is a cut above me in rank and in society too—belongs to the great clubs, and is in with the Superlatives and Inaccessibles and all that sort of folk.—My training has been a peg lower—but hang it, there are better dogs bred in the kennel than in the parlour.”
What is worth remarking here is how closely these uses parallel those of the older phrase. Both are used to denote superiority/inferiority across the same variety of fields: financial capacity, social standing, intellectual ability, critical discernment. Above my cut and a cut above me both mean essentially the same thing: today we’d say “out of my class”, or “out of my league”.
And none of these uses has any reference to fashion or tailoring.
Where, then, did the use of cut to denote “rank” or “class” come from?
OED offers what it regards on historical and orthographical grounds as a distinct word, perhaps related to Welsh cwt: **CUT sb. 1 **. It defines this meaning as “lot”, in the sense of draw lots (OED ), and notes uses of the word to denote not only the physical object drawn but also the result of the drawing.
The use of lot to mean “one’s allotted role or station” or “one’s sort” or “one’s proper place in society” is quite familiar; and in fact OED cites for this sense Palsgrave’s 1530 glossing of “Cutte or lotte” as equivalent to French “sort”.
(There is also keep one’s cut, which OED assigns to Cut sb.2; one sense often ascribed to it is “to put up with (one's) lot; know (one's) position or circumstances MED sv cut 2.b..” But this is controversial.)
This meaning looks very plausible for two more citations given by OED for sense 16.b. One is this:
I have not been able to track down an online copy of William Prynne’s Health's Sickness. The Unloveliness of Lovelocks, so I can’t speak to the context of his “common rank and cutt”. There may be some punning involved: this work is the loathsome Prynne’s diatribe against long hair on men and short hair on women. But an instructive parallel is found in this, from a near-contemporary (1646) sermon The Burden of Issachar:
Here cut and dress are brought into close association—but coat is employed in two very common 17th-century figurative senses: "6. garb, as indicating profession (e.g. clerical) ; hence profession, class, order, sort, party" and "10. anything that covers, invests, or conceals " (OED, s.v. Coat). The association is fortuitous, at most one of alliteration; fashion or manner of cutting doesn't come into it.
The second OED citation is even more interesting:
At first look this appears to be, as OED takes it to be, the fashion sense, and indeed it occurs in a passage which starts by talking about dress; but cut itself is about something altogether different. Here's the context (with substantial ellipsis—there's a limit to how much of Richadson’s prolixity can be borne):
Cut refers not to fashion but to behavior—specifically, behavior appropriate to one's lot, sort or standing.
And the date of this passage, 1741, brings us into the same decade as the earliest appearance of “above my cut”.
EDIT: Thanks to SevenSidedDie for raising objections which echoed my own sense that the Random House explanation smelled bad.
It comes to us from tailoring by way of fashion.
Obviously, some cuts were better than others, a fact that has been obvious to observers and writers throughout the ages. From the Random House 'Word of the Day' page: