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This expression is commonly used in the southern United States from Oklahoma to Virginia, and is patently illogical, and yet fails to inspire any consternation or lack of semantic connection. On a very basic level, I can understand how it probably grew from the slang request to "cut the power", to "cut the lights off", to the corollory request to "cut the lights on".

What tickles me is how remarkably bizarre the expression is, and how totally unremarkable it seems to be to everyone who uses it or hears it. You would never ask someone to "cut the piece back on the cake ", so why is it that no one seems to notice the same impossibility with regards to electricity and lights?

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    I think "patently illogical" fails as an argument against any existing usage in the English language.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jul 11, 2013 at 14:48
  • I guess that is one reason that learners of English complain about the relatively high number of idioms in English compared to other languages. "Near miss" is another that only seemed to get used more in the media after there was a period of frequent discussion of it. I've decided to just assume that both the "near" and the "miss" are referring to the objects themselves that were on a collision course rather than the "near" referring to the "miss". At least it gave me some satisfaction that it wasn't completely illogical.
    – Abraxas
    Commented Jul 14, 2013 at 11:17
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    Could you please clarify? I'm not sure I see what exactly your question is here. Commented Jul 22, 2013 at 6:17
  • A similar and perhaps more commonly used phrase would be to "snap" the power or lights on. To snap something would be to break, so, unless they're referring to the snapping sound which some power switches make, this makes little sense either. Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 12:34

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Back in the day, switches were knife blade switches and the blade actually cut into the saddle, which meant to cut the light on/off. This was long before switches, as we know them, existed. Nothing Southern associated here. Knife blade switches are still in use in some places today.

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The question of whether this particular usage is logical or illogical hinges on whether cut can mean "turn or switch" or whether it can only mean "reduce, interrupt, or put an end to (as by cutting into something)."

Harold Wentworth, American Dialect Dictionary (1944) has the following relevant coverage of cut as a verb:

cut, v. t. ... 3. To turn;—used with off, out, & on. [Examples:] 1931 Miss[issippi] Cut the lights off! W. Faulkner 'Dry Sept.' 1941 Miss[issippi] She cut the light out..and then then the City cut the lights off..I'm going over..and tell them to cut this water back on. Faulkner Men Working 73, 140, 174.

Dictionary of American Regional English (1985) has separate entries for cut off and cut on, as well as one relevant definition of cut as a verb:

cut v ... 13 with down or up; Transf: to decrease or increase the volume or intensity. Cf. cut off v phr

...

cut off v phr Also cut out chiefly Sth, S Midl ... To turn or switch (something) off; to extinguish (a lamp or fire). ...

...

cut on v phr chiefly Sth, S Midl ... To turn or switch (something) on.

The maps included in DARE indicate that "cut off" for "turn off" and "cut on" for "turn on" occur in very nearly the same U.S states, ranging (primarily) from Texas and Oklahoma in the west to Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida in the East. It's interesting to note the implied continuity of the verb choices involved in this series of terms—from cut off (completely extinguish) to cut down (diminish) to cut up (increase) to cut on (switch states from off to on).

DARE cites an instance of "cut on" in connection with speech patterns in Washington D.C.:

Washington {Black} kids don't switch or turn a light off, they cut it on or off.

DARE also notes the use of "cut off" to mean "extinguish a fire", in a 1986 instance recorded in Texas: "Cut the fire out." Idiomatically (although perhaps not logically), most U.S. speakers would probably say instead "Put the fire out" or "Put out the fire."

One further use of cut that may be related to the popular understanding in parts of the U.S. South of "cut off" and "cut on" as meaning "turn off" and "turn on" is in the expression "cut and run." Wentworth defines that phrase as follows:

cut and run. To start quickly & run away.

Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013) has a more extensive entry for "cut and run":

cut and run Clear out, escape, desert, as in He wished he could just cut and run. This term originally (about 1700) meant to cut a vessel[']s anchor cable and make sail at once. By the mid-1800s it was being used figuratively. Charles Dickens had it in Great Expectations (1861): "I'd give a shilling if they had cut and run." Also see CUT OUT, def. 7 ["Leave, especially in a hurry; also, run away"].

Subjectively, I see a strong similarity in meaning today between "cut and run" and "turn tail and run"—an idiomatic phrase that Wentworth does not discuss, but that Ammer defines as "Run away, as in When they heard the sirens, the boys turned tail." An Ngram chart of "turn tail" (blue line) versus "turned tail" (red line) versus "turn tail and run" (green line) versus "turned tail and ran" (yellow line) indicates that the two longer phrases have been in consistent (albeit relatively low-level) use since at least 1860:

As the cut in "cut and run" moves farther away (in popular understanding) from its nautical origin as a description of cutting a ship's moorings so that it can float or sail away, English speakers may be more inclined to interpret the phrase as another instance where cut means "turn."

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What part of Oklahoma? I've lived there most of my life, and don't recall hearing that one. There are parts of the state I don't get to much though.

My guess based on your other info is that it would roughly coincide with the portions of the state that use the word "coke" to cover all carbonated beverages (it's "pop" in my part of the state).

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If so, I'd further postulate that this is likely a feature of the Southern American English dialect. All one can really say about dialects is that ones that aren't yours tend to sound weird, sometimes even funny or downright wrong to you. As SAE isn't one of the "prestige" dialects of English, it is particularly vulnerable to such attacks.

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    That map is bogus. Where I came from, in northern Kentucky, the universal term for "soft drink" was "CokeOrSumpin". "Would you like a CokeOrSumpin?"
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 19, 2016 at 21:38
  • @HotLicks - The map is based on statistical data from surveys. You can always add your own data to the survey if you think it needs more info. But otherwise your beef is with the people who filled out the survey in a way you consider "wrong". My guess would be its as simple as your compatriots all just selected "Coke" as the closest equivalent to what they say, but I notice some green "other" counties in northern KY, so perhaps that is you.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Dec 19, 2016 at 22:17
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Back in the day of oil lamps, if you cut the wick, you might get more or less light depending how the wick was cut... side, slant, high or low. Perhaps "cutting the light" on or off, came from that?

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Can't seem to find anything corroborating this now, so it may be completely wrong! But I recall reading that this came from the early days of gas-fueled lighting, when lamplighters used both "cut on" and "cut off" to literally mean manipulating a lamp's gas valve during the lighting/extinguishing processes. Merriam-webster provides a definition supporting this usage-case of the word "cut", and it is still used this way by people who frequently use valves with rotating control mechanisms:

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cut

Entry 1/3, v. tr., 3 d: to turn sharply

This probably evolved into "cut the lights on"/"off" when gas lamps became popular indoors, and were thus operated by residents instead of hired professionals. When a change in ambient lighting was desired, it would be more direct to say "cut the light..."; this is analogous to modern lighting where people typically say "turn the light..." rather than "turn the light switch...".

The few times I've personally heard people say "cut", especially "cut the lights on" or even "cut the TV on", it was from rural friends in the southern US. I started saying it often myself (I guess I thought it was cute). I distinctly remember someone later telling me this sounded "rednecky", because "cutting" an electric device can only literally mean deenergizing it. So, I looked it up and found the explanation above. Wish I could find it again; starting to wonder if my ego is trying to... "gaslight" my memory 🤦‍♂️

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