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I am reading Uncle Tom's Cabin. When Eliza realizes she and her son will be split up by a business deal, she runs away with him during the night. In the ensuing commotion the next morning, a boy named Andy says to a man named Sam,

"Why, you don't know, I s'pose, that Lizy's cut stick [emphasis added], and clared out, with her young un?"

In the source above the annotation to this quote cites "to cut stick" as meaning to make off, a term that can mean to depart in haste. Further, other sources offer the following definition for "to cut stick":

to make off clandestinely or precipitately

I have my suspicions of etymology, the most defensible being that "to cut stick" has to do with making some piece of a runaway's paraphernalia, such as a bindle or walking staff. But I have been unable to find any sources to corroborate or contradict this possibility.

Do any formal sources shed light on how to cut stick is related to running away secretly and quickly?

Edit: After some more research, I think I may have come up with a more defensible suggestion. It may be that the idiom is similar to cut class, which has no physical imagery (i.e., the students are not literally cutting anything). A direct analogy with cut class seems unlikely, given the definitions I've found of stick, since the use of stick most likely to mean location or event is the pluralized form sticks (definition 14)

  • sticks Informal
    1. A remote area; backwoods: moved to the sticks.
    2. A city or town regarded as dull or unsophisticated.

But stick can mean "a threatened penalty" by definition 12. It may be that the phrase to cut stick implies running away from a punishment, hence the haste and secrecy. But this seems like a reach because none of the definitions I found of to cut stick explicitly mention punishment.

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Summary

The American cut your stick, to die, comes from the British cut your stick, to depart, which dates back to at least 1813.


Americanisms

Uncle Tom's Cabin by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe was published in 1852 so let's check an almost contemporary dictionary.

Maximilian Schele de Vere's Americanisms; the English of the New World (1872) says on page 594:

Cut, to, enters, like go -and come, into a number of slang phrases, the majority of which are, liowever, well-known English. Only a few have an American flavor about them, though often quite unsavory. To cut dirt, for running away in haste, is evidently taken from the fondness of Americans for fast driving. " Now you cut dirt, and don't let me see you here again for a coon's age, you hear!" {Western Scenes.) To cut a swathe, in the sense of cutting a dash, is evidently Western, and taken from the ambition of powerful, well-trained mowers to cut the widest swathe. To cut on^s sticky used in England instead of to leave, has been enlarged in its meaning by American vigor of speech, and here often means to die. " I'm blowed if he cut stick" (N. Hawthorne.)


Irish origin?

The OED has the British English sense of departing from 1825 but with no etymology.

The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (2001) based on the original by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810 – 1897) offers an Irish origin:

I must cut my stick--i.e. leave. The Irish usually cut a shillelah bfore they start on an expedition, Punch gives the following witty derivation:--

"Pilgrims on leaving the Holy Land used to cut a palm-stick, to prove tey had really been to the Holy Sepulchre. So brother Francis would say to brother Paul, ' Where is brother Benedict ?' 'Oh (says Paul), he has cut his stick ! ' — i.e. he is on his way home."


OED antedating

The OED can be antedated in Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1823, page 107 -- but not in the 1788 or 1796 editions) which simply says:

CUT ONE'S STICK. To be off. Cant.


Further antedatings

Further antedatings can be found in Othello-travestie: In Three Acts, with Burlesque Notes in the Manner of the Most Celebrated Commentators and Other Curious Appendices by John Poole (and William Shakespeare) (page 8):

Roderigo.

Why not cut your stick ? (b)

Page 29, just before Cassio leaves:

Cassio.

I'll cut my stick.

And in the extensive footnotes:

b cut your stick In our author's time travellers used stalls when journeying purposely to facilitate their progress the temporary and occasional imposition of the arm on the stick relieving the bodily weight generally

t borne by the feet Roderigo therefore means u Why do youpreserve terms of amity with a man displeasing to you and eminently obnoxious quit the service of the Moor that is metaphorically cut your stick take your departure Johnson cut your stick means nothing more nor less than flake him heartily lay it on him trounce him Doctor Johnson's interpretation is ingenious but ingenious only Theobald cut your stick Mr Theobald's self possession on this abstruse point almost makes me regret that our Author lives not to cut his stick and use it on a certain Commentator's back according to his sapient interpretation 1 shall not lose further time on the consideration of the question than merely to quotethe following lines from another part of this play which if applicable and there is no doubt of it should induce Mr Theobald to cut his stick iu the true sense as a Commentator ne sutor Desdemona and Cassio JEmilia Ma am here's the General Cassio I ll cut my stick 1 Desdemona Oh stop Warburton cut my stick I have happily met with a passage iu the course of my researches which proves Dr Johnson's reading correct In M Fayre Julie her woefull Lament entered in the books of the Stationers Company 24th May 1597 1 find the following OTHELLO TItAYESTIE 61

O fare you well my Darbie true Although you dyd me try eke I cannot chuse but say adewe Sith you will cut your slick Steevens 61 OTHELLO TKAVESTIE

Given the subtitle of the book -- "with Burlesque Notes in the Manner of the Most Celebrated Commentators" -- I don't think we can trust these notes to be real, and therefore the 1597 to be fictional, but they are at least 1813 examples.

  • From the above it certainly looks like I'm not the only one to have thought "to cut stick" must have imagery behind it. I think what you said answers my question: The American meaning (running away secretly and hastily) comes from a corruption of a British phrase, in which the stick is thought by several to be a tool (weapon?) or keepsake. I like de Vere's reference especially. Thanks! – user39720 Jan 14 '14 at 16:15
  • I've sent these antedatings and the new sense of "to die" to the OED. – Hugo Jan 15 '14 at 8:49
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I found a citation for De Quincey, in fact multiple citations to "De Quincey".

The quote links to "2. To cut one's stick" as a synonym for death.

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