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I came across this sentence in a documentary:

[That] cut to the heart of the larger story I was investigating.

The meaning appears to be "to touch on/get to the crux of the issue." But strangely enough I can't find a dictionary definition of this phrase. Google shows "cut to the heart" also appears in certain versions of the Bible with a different and unrelated meaning, "to be hurt emotionally."

Are there any authoritative sources, such as dictionary entries that explain this phrase? I would also like to know the etymologies of this two meanings, e.g. which translation of the Bible first used "cut to the heart" and did its meaning originate with that translation?

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    It's a relatively recent phrase -- only goes back to 1700 or so.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 10, 2018 at 17:59
  • It is important to understand that the phrase is divided into {Cut} and {to the heart [of the matter/the object at hand]}
    – Greybeard
    Mar 27, 2021 at 1:15

6 Answers 6

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The OED has this sense of "cut":

fig. (trans.). To wound deeply the feelings of; to distress greatly. Now chiefly in phr. to cut to the heart.

The first citation they have for this sense of the word is from a bible from 1582, the Douay–Rheims Bible:

When they had heard these things, it cut them to the hart.

This is obviously the second meaning you mentioned ("to be hurt emotionally"). Apparently, it's the older of the two expressions, since "heart" meaning "essential part" only dates back to Shakespeare, judging from the OED's first citation:

Our deere cosin Hamlet Hath lost the very heart of all his sence.
Hamlet (1603)

It's hard to say when exactly "cut to the heart [of X]" came into use. It may be based off the expression "cut to the chase" (which is a film-based idiom that dates back to at least 1929).

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[That] cut to the heart of the larger story I was investigating.

In the sense of the meaning that you are looking for (rather than the Biblical reference), it is important to understand that the phrase is divided:

{[Cut] [to the heart]} {of the subject/matter [in hand]}

In this sense "cut" is, to a degree, a verb of motion implying swiftness of movement:

OED

Cut 18.a. transitive. To pass sharply through, cleave (the air, the water).

a1571 W. Haddon in A. Fleming Panoplie Epist. (1576) 423 Shippes..cut the waves as they are furthered with a merrie winde.

1596 E. Spenser Hymne Heauenly Loue in Fowre Hymnes 69 With nimble wings to cut the skies.

And hence:

19 b. To move sharply, to run rapidly. With various adverbs and prepositions.

1797 B. Hawkins Lett. (1916) 126 He was driving a wagon at the time he was taken, and they cut out and took the horses with him.

1949 ‘M. Innes’ Journeying Boy ii. 25 ‘And now you'd better cut along.’ Captain Cox was a great believer in the moral effects of abrupt dismissals on the young.

Meaning 18a and 19b above create an apt image for "cut to the heart of X" - as it carries both the meaning of slice efficiently with a sharp instrument and implies a swift and decisive action.

To - preposition = as far as

The heart: -

20. With reference to non-material things: the vital, essential, significant, or operative part; the essence or core (of something).

1603 W. Shakespeare Hamlet sig. D3 Our deere cosin Hamlet Hath lost the very heart of all his sence.

1956 R. A. Horn Groups & Constit. ii. 30 Let us cut to the heart of the matter as quickly as we can. We must begin by asking what is the purpose.

1990 Parenting Feb. 38/2 Kids really get to the heart of spelling..when they're engaged in spontaneous writing.

Thus we have a simple combination of words, readily understandable, although mainly figurative, and, as such, a "first mention" is difficult to find as it is not remarkable.

[That] cut to the heart of the larger story I was investigating. = which address directly the essential part of the more complex set of circumstances that I was investigating,

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What part of the bible did you find that in, and which translation (e.g. ESV, NASB, NIV, etc.)?

The modern use of that phrase means "get to the core" or as you said "the crux" since the heart represents the center.

Maybe this will help: the "heart" in the middle ages sometimes meant "stomach" or vise versa, since it was believed all man's emotions arise from the stomach. The "heart of man" means more than the organ that pumps blood; it is the metaphysical collection of a man's feelings and or being.

I have a feeling that in the bible, that could be much more literal. To cut into the blood-pumper, as it were.

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Be Cut to the Heart

• Acts 7:54 “Now when they heard these things, they were cut to the heart…”

• Fully controlled by the Holy Spirit, Stephen received a vision of the Risen Christ standing beside the Heavenly Father in all His Glory! Stephen has been confessing Christ before men, and now he sees the Risen Christ confessing him before the Throne of God. He was highly honored in heaven and he died as Jesus did, with prayers being his last mighty words (Luke 23:34). From his place of helplessness, he looked up and said, "Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" God's Begotten Son stood up in honorary testimony of him who was first called to serve tables and was faithful unto death.

• As the stones came flying at Stephen, pounding his body, crashing into his bones, striking his head, mangling his beautiful face, this faithful man, chosen for an ordinary task but filled with the Holy Spirit, was so moved upon by the Father that he finished his earthly work in a “Blaze of Glory”, magnifying the Risen Christ with his last breath. Looking up into the face of the Master, he said, "Lord, do not charge them with this sin" (Acts 7:60). "And when he had said this, he fell asleep". What a divine ending to the life and testimony of a man filled with the Holy Spirit who had been chosen to serve tables.

•There are two marvelous occasions in the Bible where the people were "cut to the heart." In Acts 2:37, after Peter had delivered that Holy Spirit inspired sermon on the Day of Pentecost, the people were "cut to the heart" with conviction, and three thousand souls were added to the church. "Cut to the heart" describes being painfully wounded! Brethren, the place of being filled with the Holy Spirit is the only place of divine operation where Christ’s believer binds the power of the enemy.

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  • This could do with some clarity on how it actually answers the question. Jun 27, 2021 at 20:04
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If you look up the following scriptures on biblehub.com you can see the versions that use this phrase (some King James and I believe there is another one) Acts 2:37, 5:33 & 7:54 (this is all I have found so far).

The meaning however is not of an emotional one but of truth.

We see in scriptures like Jeremiah 18:12, Exodus 4:21, Isaiah 6:10 (and many others) God speaks of a 'hardened heart' -therefore, when the Apostles were ministering the truth (or anyone; because it's the Holy Spirit who brings the truth to each person regardless of the era) 'cut to the heart' is the description that tells us 'in that moment God was able to reach them with the truth' and from there we see how the crowd or persons acted.

In chapter 2 of Acts they asked Peter what should we do and he said 'repent'. Then in chapter 5 & 7 the men were furious (basically that they were called out AND they KNEW it was the truth) so their actions that were moved by their evil hearts followed.

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Acts 2:37—“When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

In Acts 1:4-5 After his resurrection Jesus told his disciples: “On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”. After this occurred, what we know as the Day of Pentecost, the disciples began to speak in unknown tongues, yet everyone understood what they were saying. Some, even though it was only about 9:00 am, thought they were drunk.

In Acts 2:14 Peter explains to the crowd what’s going on. Quoting Joel 2:28-32 he reproves the crowd bringing clarity and truth to the false accusations: “Let me explain this to you; listen carefully..this is what was spoke by the prophet Joel I will pour out my Spirit on all…Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy…”

He goes on to explain how "Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him," and that he "was handed over"....put to death on the cross, "But God raised him from the dead..". Peter furthermore briefly recounted Israel's history and how Jesus surely was the Son of God and Messiah they had hoped for. Upon hearing this truth, then, as referenced in the comments above, (The Book of Acts, chapter 2) "When the people heard this, they were CUT TO THE HEART and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

I believe what "cut to the heart" means then is, what they knew, thought to be true, better yet, what was held dear or close to the heart, was not true. Or at least is no longer true because of the new information given to them: the truth of salvation through Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins.

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    As above, "to get to the crux of the issue". Mar 27, 2021 at 0:07

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