I hired a private detective to see if I could cut a deal

In the above sentence, why do we cut a deal? Should I replace it with make a deal? Is it a popular idiom in the native English world?

  • 1
    I wouldn't say it's "popular", but we do say "Cut a record deal," "Cut a deal with the Devil," or "Cut a deal with the district attorney." None of those uses cause me to frown. However, your sentence made me stop and think for a moment. Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 2:36
  • What is the source of the sentence? Did you make it yourself?
    – user140086
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 5:47
  • @Rathony, from the TV series The Blacklist, S03E05, around 29min47seconds
    – zangw
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 5:57
  • 3
    See also "cut" a check. Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 17:37
  • I'm vaguely recalling that I once read that this expression referred to cutting a receipt off a written contract, or something of that nature. But I have nothing to back that up.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 23:14

7 Answers 7


Bruce Jones has written an article about this idiom.

It comes from the ancient ritual of cutting animals in half when making an agreement. There's a good example of it happening in the Bible when God makes a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15. The idea is that in making the agreement you are saying "may the same thing happen to me as just happened to these animals I cut up, if I break my end of the deal."

  • 6
    It is unusual for biblical idioms to enter the English language in the 1970s. Compare "cut a deal" with "skin of my teeth" where the latter is clearly biblical (Job 19:20)
    – Henry
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 14:47
  • 2
    Until the 70s the meaning of strange phrase in Genesis wasn't being taught. In essence, our society has regained that knowledge recently.
    – Joshua
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 16:21
  • 1
    "unusual for biblical idioms to enter the English language in the 1970s". Your statement sounds authoritative, but actually anecdotal. I guess you never got swept by the waves and tides of evangelical revivalism, and therefore never had the opportunity to witness biblical idioms being revived or reinvented. Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 1:19
  • 1
    @BlessedGeek: in a biblical context I would expect they would use the word "covenant" rather than "deal"
    – Henry
    Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 13:03
  • 1
    You read the Bible? And in English? I read in Hebrew. And "covenant" is an English/European word. Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 4:45

Here is a Google Ngram chart for the phrase "cut a deal" for the period 1600–2005:

It seems not at all likely that the emergence of this phrase in the late twentieth century is owing to an ancient notion of cutting up animals to solemnize an agreement.

'Cut a deal' in slang dictionaries

Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997) has this entry for the phrase:

cut a deal Offer or arrange an agreement or compromise, as in The administration is hoping to cut deal with Japan. This expression uses deal in the sense of "business transaction." {Colloquial; 1970s}

J.E. Lighter, The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, volume 1 (1994) has this as definition 14(b) of the verb cut:

to offer or arrange (a compromise or agreement). [First citation:] 1979 N.Y. Times Mag. (July 22) 15: And so we may have to cut a deal with the Soviets. We do not like to do this, because cutting deals with the Soviets is hazardous—and often the Soviets end up holding all the cards.

The cited instance in Lighter suggests that the term originated in connection with cutting cards as a preliminary aspect of playing a round of some card game.

And Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) has this:

cut (or crack) a deal v phr by 1970s To make or conclude an arrangement, transact an agreement: [examples omitted]

Chapman & Kipfer have a separate entry for a possibly allied expression, "cut [someone] a break":

cut someone a break v phr by 1970s To give someone special favor: He petitioned ... Judge Michael Wallace to cut me a break—Philadelphia Journal

Early Google Books matches for 'cut a deal'

A Google Books search finds several matches for "cut a deal" in the relevant sense from before 1979, however. From Joseph Kraft, "Waltzes by Strauss—How the Democrats Learned Some Old Steps," in New York Magazine (July 5, 1976):

The multiplicity of primaries did not yield the stalemate which Strauss expected would lead to a deadlocked convention that he and others might broker. On the contrary, there emerged a runaway favorite in Jimmy Carter [who allegedly had said earlier in the campaign,"I'd be a pretty pathetic nominee if I wasn't able to get rid of Strauss as national chairman"]. As Carter came forward, Strauss was obliged to drop his personal favorites. In the end, he cut a deal.

From Tom Curtis, "Will Success Spoil Leonel Castillo?" in Texas Monthly (August 1976):

n a gesture consistent with his history and with reality as well, Castillo pledged not to run for state [Democratic] party chairman without the endorsement of the black caucus. But the caucus already cut a deal with the party leadership to have a black elected vice chairman in September and was worried that Castillo's election might upset that deal.

From Paul Burka, "...And War," in Texas Monthly (September 1976):

For days thereafter the rumors flew: Carter's going to write a letter to all his delegates in Texas urging them to support [Calvin] Guest; Carter's sick of [Texas governor Dolph] Briscoe; Carter's going to show up at the convention: Briscoe's cut a deal with Carter insider Charles Kirbo; Jody Powell promised Carter would stay out of it.

From U.S. Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Separation of Powers, Panama Canal Treaty: Feb. 27 thru Mar. 16, 1978 [snippets]:

The long and the short of the story was, he cut a deal. Right from the beginning of that 1903 Treaty, there was not one Panamanian official, even under the phony arrangement that had just transpired, that ever saw the document, much less negotiated it, much less signed it.


"Well, you go ahead. They really do not have much physical presence or control here. You go ahead and cut a deal. We will work this out. You storm the palace or take over the guardhouse and put up a flag called Alabama, an independent flag, and then once you do that we will have our crack Panamanian marines just standing offshore around your boundaries, to intimidate, to successfully intimidate, any likelihood that Mississippi, Georgia, or Florida will attack."

From Bob Black, "Boating Beat," in Popular Science (April 1977):

McQueen has some advice for astute boat buyers: Cut a deal this autumn and you may do very well price-wise on a new boat. Then take delivery next spring. There is definitely a price differential in the fall on new boats.

Other phrase that may have influenced 'cut a deal'

Two earlier phrases are of interest here. As Chapman & Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995), notes, cut [someone] a break" also dates to the 1970s; Google Books finds one instance from 1971, five years before its first match for "cut a deal." From a U.S. soldier's diary in Vietnam, in Win Peace and Freedom Thru Nonviolent Action, Volume 7 (1971):

The lieutenant, the medic, and a couple of other people were yelling down at me. "Are you hurt?" "Are you all right?" I looked up and said "I hope not." I was hoping I broke a limb or something. But no, they all worked. They lifted me out. Nothing but gashes and bruises. More pain, but nothing to get me out of the field. I wish my guardian angel would just let up a little bit and cut me a break.

Perhaps even more influential was the expression "cut [oneself] in on [a business proposition]," which dates to the 1930s. From U.S. Senate, Hearings, Reports and Prints of the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency, parts 13–14 (1934) [combined snippets]:

Mr. PECORA. What sort of an arrangement is that, Mr. Wright?

Mr. WRIGHT. That one there?

Mr. PECORA. Yes.

Mr. WRIGHT. It looks like as though the Bancamerica-Blair and E. A. Pierce had an option and also wanted to cut themselves in on 50 percent of the profits.

Mr. PECORA. Exactly.

Mr. WRIGHT. Without any risk.

Mr. PECORA. Without any risk of loss. ...

From The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson (1934) [combined snippets]:

The young man comes back from that other war of collective security and what a laugh: he has saved the world but it's somebody else's oyster. No job. On your way, bum, etc. He manages to cut himself in on a little fly bootlegging—a package here, a package there; he organizes a nice little group of boys, and they back trucks up to a government warehouse, take a boat of their own out and load it to the waterline, and presently he's doing all right, with a spot of his own and a place in community life.

From Collier's Illustrated Weekly, volume 96 (1935):

He merely added another stopping place—another middleman to the process of the marketing. He cut himself in on the business at a point where he could levy a tax of fifty cents on every box of the vegetables entering New York. He did what the robber-baron of old did when he took his station along the road—having closed all others—an levied a tax on all who passed.


There is no evident component of solemn biblical ritual or ancient custom in the early instances of "cut a deal" that a Google Books search yields. In fact, all of the examples cited in this answer—which are the five earliest matches in Google Books search results for the phrase—suggest at best an unorthodox agreement, and more often what might be characterized as a "back-room bargain"—an arrangement that occurs in private and to the benefit of the particular individuals concluding the deal, but to the disadvantage of other stakeholders.

This strikes me as owing much more to the phrase "cut [oneself] in on [a business proposition]" than to anything else.


Update (May 1, 2019): Other early instances of 'cut a deal'

Although they don't alter my earlier conclusions, I wanted to add a note about some additional instances of "cut a deal" that I found in an Elephind newspaper database search.

First, instances of "cut a deal" appear in Australian newspapers in the late 1800s, starting in 1886, in situations where the expression is part of a longer phrase—"cut a deal [of something else]". For example "cut a deal of time to waste" (Melbourne, Victoria, March 19, 1886); "cut a deal more water" (Bendigo, Victoria, April 27, 1888); "cut a deal of work" (Sydney, New South Wales, September 16, 1895); "cut a deal of objectionable matter" (Sydney, New South Wales, May 26, 1897). In each of these instances, "deal" doesn't mean "a contractual or informal agreement" but "a considerable amount [of something]." I see no evident connection between this usage and the usage that involves "deal" as "agreement."

A similar usage appears in two Minnesota newspapers in connection with politics: "the fifteen representatives from the district may be able to cut a deal of a figure in the speakership contest by judiciously handling the candidacy of Mr. Stine" (St. Paul Globe, December 4, 1896); and "Clapp is going to cut a deal of a figure in the next Republican convention" (New Ulm Review, November 3, 1897). The expression "cut a deal of a figure" appears nowhere else in an unrestricted Elephind search, suggesting that this may have been a very localized expression (New Ulm is about 100 miles from St. Paul).

In the early 1900s, "cut a deal" appears in connection with the practice of having one player "cut" a deck of cards before the dealer deals them. For example, from H.M. Somer, "The Luck of the Ring," in the [Mount Gambier, South Australia] Border Watch (April 20, 1907):

"...We beat him in ladies' hacks last year, and our horse, Volunteer, would have won the Hunters' at Belltown if Peter Patterson hadn't let him go slovenly, and hit the last fence. Never mind, we've got something pretty hot for him this time, haven't we, Peter?" said Mary, as she cut a deal for a game of euchre on the evening after the schooling incident.

This offers an interesting possibility as a source for "cutting a deal"—but it has the problem that the card sense of "cutting a deal" amounts to altering a deal (before it happens) rather than reaching agreement on a deal. Still, a similar criticism could be made of "cutting in on a deal," where the "cutting in" is an intrusion or interposition of the person doing the cutting in on negotiations leading to a deal.

Nevertheless, Elephind searches o turn up an instance of "cut a deal" in the modern idiomatic sense from considerably earlier than the 1970s. From Gene Alleman, "Michigan Mirror: Non-Partisan News Letter," in the Saline [Michigan] Observer (September 19, 1940):

The organization custom is to recognize the loyal party worker whom the leaders feel can be trusted. Or perhaps the "powers that be" weigh the geographic, class and possibly religious factors at the ballot box and cut a deal which is henceforth relayed down to the rank and file. In the later process the unknown may be given an opportunity, but it is usually for a reason known only to a select few.

This, it seems to me, is clearly an instance of "cut a deal" as "come to an agreement." Similar instances appear in U.S. newspapers during the period 1966–1975. From J.M. Grim, "As We See Things: Can Our Lawmakers Ignore the Constitution," in the Farwell [Michigan] News (July 24, 1969):

Another violation of majority rule occurred when Senate GOP majority leader, Emil Lockwood, ignored a sweeping majority in his own Republican caucus, cut a deal with a bunch of Democrats, to get approval, by two votes, with only five Republicans among them, for an appointee of the Governor.

From James McNaughton, "The Unmaking of the Vice President, 1973," originally in the New York Times, reprinted in the San Bernardino [California] Sun (October 28, 1973):

When the two sets of lawyers met the first time on Sept. 13, Judah Best made a startling proposal.

"My line was," he later reminisced. "I want an end of this, an end of the investigation. And his resignation is part of it. Let's cut a deal. A nolo plea (a nolo contendere, or no contest, the legal equivalent of a plea of guilt without the admission) to a one-count information. No jail term. And he'll resign. And I want to save this man's honor to the extent I can."

From "Summit Talks Give Ford a Lift," a UPI story published in the [Palm Springs, California] Desert Sun (December 2, 1974):

The change in the mood and atmosphere was in glaring contrast with the pessimism that prevailed in July when Nixon and Brezhnev tried to work out a SALT II accord.

It was claimed that the Russians believed Nixon was a fading political figure, much weakened by his Watergate woes, and decided not to cut a deal.

And from a letter to the editor by Congressman Jim Lloyd, "Not a 'Righteous Stance'" in the San Bernardino [California] Sun (December 18, 1975):

My vote was not the result of "a righteous stance" against "old sinful Gotham." Such emotionalism had given way long before to objective analysis of the facts and consequences of a default by New York. Rather, my vote was in opposition to the way this issue was man[eu]vered by the President onto the floor of the House. In plain language, the President cut a deal with the House leadership with which I could not agree.

The three instances from California from the early 1970s don't establish much of a regional nexus, as their sources are a New York Times story, a wire service story from United Press International, and a letter from a U.S. Congressman who may have picked up the expression in Washington, D.C.

In contrast, the 1940 and 1969 instances from Michigan are locally written. And although they don't constitute as striking a regional bull's-eye as the two Minnesota instances of "cut a deal of a figure" in 1896 and 1897 do, they at least represent an interesting coincidence.

Did "cut a deal" in the sense of "reach an agreement" originate in Michigan? The record is far too weak to support that conclusion, but it does indicate that the expression was in use in Michigan in the relevant sense in 1940 and was still (or again) in use there 29 years later.


The following interesting paper from the California State University explains in details its possible origin. Note the expression is still considered a slang idiomatic one and its usage is quite recent (from the 70's as shown in Ngram), but its origin is much, much older:

As for the verb cut the author says that:

  • The choice of verb comes from the world of solemn oaths, contracts and international treaties, where cutting was central to a ritual used in making agreements. An animal was killed and cut up, and the person who entered into the agreement invoked a conditional self-curse upon himself, saying, in effect, "May the same thing happen to me if I violate this agreement." According to Herodotus, related rituals were used by Scythians and Persians, though we do not know the terminology they used.

As for its origin and earliest usages:

  • The slang expression which is the subject of this paper is the phrase, "to cut a deal," referring to the making of an agreement. The oldest written reference to this expression cited in the most recent dictionary of American slang (Lighter, "Cut," 15b), comes from 1979, but its oral usage is undoubtedly older than that.

  • I want to argue that the expression, in fact, may have a history nearly 4,000 years old. Specifically, I believe the English phrase is a translation of Biblical Hebrew. In turn, the Hebrew usage is based on international practice for making agreements in the ancient world which was widespread among many different peoples over a long period of time.

  • The expression "cutting a deal" is both slang, in that it has not yet become widely accepted as part of the English language, and also an idiom, because it has its own peculiar, non-literal meaning. Most idioms have a logic of their own, and there are usually reasons behind them, even if they have been forgotten. In this case, verbs for cutting were chosen because of the ritual cutting of animals which accompanied the making of agreements. The ritual action survived at least as late as the time of Xerxes I in the 5th century BCE.

  • We will probably never know when, where or by whom the expression was first used in English. Tracing slang is always an uncertain process because of its oral origins. However, some explanations are more likely than others. There are at least three possible sources for the slang term: Hebrew, French or an indigenous development within English. I will argue that Hebrew is the most likely.

  • The inner-English explanation, related to cutting a deck of cards before dealing them, is appealing in its simplicity, but it loses its initial plausibility when analyzed. It requires that the verb, to deal, become a noun and change its meaning radically. Dealing cards has nothing to do with making deals, and it is hard to imagine how cutting a deck of cards can be related to making an agreement. However, the Lighter dictionary does make an association between card playing and cutting deals. Its first citation says "cutting deals with the Soviets is hazardous [because] often the Soviets end up holding all the cards." Surely, the connection to playing cards is a secondary association that arises because of the double meaning of "deal"

  • Could French be the source? French has an idiomatic expression, couper a poire en deux, to cut a pear in two, which dates from at least 1933 (Tresor 1988, v. 13, 680. Cf. Rey and Chantreau 1979, 754). Here, the cutting refers to sharing equally in the risks and benefits of an agreement, to compromising in such a way that the parties "split the difference" between them. One might argue that the French idiom is the source for the American expression, to cut a deal, but there is no easy way to explain how it would move from French to American English between 1933 and 1979 unless it came by way of Quebec, the largest English-French bilingual population in North America. I know of no evidence for such a route.

  • What is the evidence for a source in Hebrew and ancient ritual practices? The usual Hebrew idiom for making an agreement is karat berit, to cut a covenant, and the term can refer to many different kinds of agreement, e. g., a treaty, a contract, a loyalty oath. Circumcision, of course, is a cutting ritual, and circumcision is a symbol of Israel's covenant with God. However, as I shall demonstrate, the choice of verb has a pre-Israelite background that Hebrew shares with other languages. The cutting of the penis is later than the semantic association of cutting and making agreements.

  • There are several ancient languages in which some verb for cutting or killing is used for making agreements, often from unrelated cultural contexts. Weinfeld has pointed out that not only was there a shared terminology for making treaties in Akkadian, Hittite, Hebrew, Aramaic and Phoenician, but that similar terms were used by the Greeks and Romans. Among these terms are various words for cut, sometimes occurring in idiomatic combinations, such as "to cut an oath" in Phoenician and in Homeric Greek (1973).


  • As noted at the beginning, certainty is impossible when dealing with origins of slang, but I believe that I have identified a very likely evolutionary path. Language conventions are very conservative. Idioms can be translated literally from one language to another, and they may persist for centuries after most people have forgotten the reasons for their origin. I believe that the idiom, to cut an agreement, was used in many languages and many forms over a period of almost 4,000 years. After two millennia in which it disappeared everywhere except in the Hebrew Bible, it has reappeared in this century in American slang.
  • 1
    I've upvoted, because it contains a fuller explanation but the "paper" you cite from is exactly the same as Toby 1 kenobi's, the author's full name is Bruce Williams Jones.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 7:20
  • I had not seen that,..., I found the paper googling, I leave it here as it actually may be useful , as you suggest.
    – user66974
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 7:26
  • 1
    I don't know how much I believe the author's argument that cutting a deck of cards "loses its initial plausibility when analyzed" as a source of "cut a deal" - given that Cockney rhyming slang is a thing that exists, I find a clever, slightly nonsensical pun plus a coincidence to be more plausible than a direct reference to ancient ritual practice.
    – Tacroy
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 18:03
  • Is Bruce Williams Jones the only source of the antiquity of this idiom? One thinks of another phrase: "publish or perish." As a challenge: write a paper on a Biblical source for "selfie". Sorry to be so sarcastic and unconstructive, but I'm from Missouri on this one.
    – ab2
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 22:31

Cut a deal usually appears in a business transaction as it is defined:

cut a deal, Informal. to make an agreement, especially a business agreement: Networks have cut a deal with foreign stations for an international hookup.


In a business transaction, it is not easy to get what you want 100%. You usually cut (reduce in amount) a portion of your target (money or any asset under negotiation) in order to reach an agreement.

We can notice that the idiom is often used in a situation where prosecution and defence attorney or a defendant himself meet in the middle for "plea bargaining":

An arrangement between prosecutor and defendant whereby the defendant pleads guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a more lenient sentence or an agreement to drop other charges.

[Oxford Online Dictionary]

When the idiom is usded as follows, it does have a connotation that you cut (reduce) something (usually a jail term or damages proposed by prosecution) in order to receive a better condition, save time and cost, and move on.

I cut a deal with the prosecutor and avoided jail time.

The Online Slang Dictionary

  • +1 for being more convincing than cutting up an animal.
    – ab2
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 22:37

Folks seem to be reaching too far for a word from this century. It clearly appeals to a model folks actually still carry around, or it would not have simply arisen quickly with little history.

We still use the word "tranche" (French for "slice", as of bread or cake) as a reference to a deal as a loaf or cake, even in the most formal models of an arbitrage or other multi-party negotiation.

In order for something to result in 'slices', the logical metaphor is 'cutting up' the 'loaf or cake' the fair allocation of which one has just finished haggling over.

So is it not most likely that this merely about 'slicing up' the "pie/cake" that is the profit available?

Taking one's slice of the profit or "piece of the pie" is what happens after a deal is "cut".

Then the new popularity may only be the result of using it for two-way deals, rather than multi-sided ones, which are much more common in ordinary life.


"Cutting" recalls cuneiform tablets or etched-in-stone monuments, indicating a serious and long-term commitment. Modern usage is somewhat ironic when applied to trivial or short-term arrangements.


Probably to do with splitting the notched tally stick which sealed monetary deals in early (Medieval?) England...?

  • 2
    The phrases keep a tally and in the nick of time are thought to have been derived from the notched stick. When in doubt, search for support and references.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 12:27

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