The phrase "I've got my work cut out for me" I have until now mistaken to mean: "The work that I have to do is largely completed (due to efforts by others beforehand), and only need to do a little bit more to finish". But I find that it actually means "The work I have to do is going to be difficult, and will take tremendous time and effort to complete".

Is there any evidence that supports the former meaning, other than being used in a sarcastic context? Or, can the former meaning be true only if used in sarcasm?

Also, I am curious about the origin of this phrase, and would love to know about its first appearance.

  • The expression can be found at idioms.thefreedictionary.com and the origin (including the sense you query) at WorldWideWords. Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 0:41
  • Of course, 'a little bit more [on each one] to finish' becomes 'The work I have to do is going to be difficult, and will take tremendous time and effort to complete' if enough cut-outs have been prepared. And the 'little bit' was probably 90% of the task. Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 0:59
  • @EdwinAshworth Ah, I seem to have taken the two meanings as being opposite, but as you point out, it is more nuanced than that. By the use of this idiom, it is apparent that there is work to do, but the quantity and difficulty of the work may differ according to the view of the speaker. It seems to me that the idiom augments the quantity and difficulty of the work, and so most listeners would deem that the speaker was faced with a lot of work to do if they said they'd "had their work cut out" for them.
    – fejoa
    Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 23:49
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    I think you’re confusing “cut out for you” with “cut down for you” to cut down is to reduce.
    – Jim
    Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 23:32

4 Answers 4


Also, I am curious about the origin of this phrase, and would love to know about its first appearance.

To have (one's) work cut out for one is from 1610s; to have it prepared and prescribed, hence, to have all one can handle. Old English weorc (n), wircan, wyrcan (vb); related to Old High German wurchen, German wirken, Old Norse yrkja, Gothic waurkjan] etymonline.com

More etymology here: worldwidewords

Is there any evidence that supports the former meaning, other than being used in a sarcastic context? Or, can the former meaning be true only if used in sarcasm?

My sense is no to both of your questions.


By way of confirming the figurative sense of the expression that Carl suggests in an answer posted earlier in the week, I offer this brief entry from Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013):

have one's work cut out for one Face a difficult task, as in This is a very large house to manage, so I have my work cut out for me. This expression alludes to cloth cutout to make a garment. {c. 1600}

The interesting thing to me about that explanation is that it suggests that the original sense of the expression wasn't that the person whose work was cut out for him or her was facing an especially difficult task, but rather that the person had no leeway to second-guess or change plans drastically because it was now too late. Once the work was cut out, there was only one way to move forward with it.

I decided to test this understanding of the expression by checking some early instances of the expression in Early English Books Online. EEBO returns 25 matches for "work[e] cut out for" from as early as 1592 and numerous related forms from as early as 1577. Here are the earliest ten relevant matches that use the expression in a figurative sense.

From a 1577 translation of Louis La Planche, A Legendarie, Conteining an Ample Discourse of the Life and Behauiour of Charles Cardinal of Lorraine, and of His Brethren, of the House of Guise:

The thing which most spited the Duke of Guise, was in that he perceiued himselfe bridled by the yelding of New hauen to the Englishmen, which vnto them was graunted vpon sundry not very vnequal conditions, considering the time: & this caused the Cardinal and the rest of his brethren to bite their nailes, seeing newe worke now cut out for them in an other place.

From a 1592 translation of Vasco Figueiro, The Spaniards Monarchie, and Leaguers Olygarchie:

Yea, but if these garrisons be so rigorous as you say, we wil chase them out of our townes, & retire our selues from the seruitude of the Spaniard. I pray you was it easie or possible to your ancient Gauls, notwithstanding they enterprised it, to deliuer them selues from the subiection of the Romans, vntil after many ages, & at such time as the said Romanes had worke cut out for them in other prouinces of their Empire? To the Grecians, from that Philip of Macedon, and at this day from that of the Othomans? To the Brittains, from that of the English Saxons?

From John Eliot, Ortho-epia Gallica: Eliots Fruits for the French (1593):

Truly here is faire worke cut out for martiall men, now we should march against that Thracian dog, Mahound God of Turkes and of Arabians, we are called away into France to aide the French king against those Saracine leaguers. Oh would to God that Carolus quintus were aliue.

From Arthur Dent, A Pastime for Parents: or A Recreation to Passe Away the Time; Contayning the Most Principall Grounds of Christian Religion (1606):

Not vnlike the Monster Hydra with seauen heads, that the Heathen write of, which hauing one of them cut off, seauen others did arise in the stead of it. And thus wée sée that the very Elect of GOD haue an endlesse trouble, and as wée say worke enough cut out, for as long as they liue, to repayre this rent and torne nature. For alas, alas, though GOD forgiue vs our sinnes, yet doth hée not, nor will hée in this life frée vs of naturall corruption.

From a 1620 translation of Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote of the Mançha:

Hast thou ended with thy tediousnesse, Sancho (sayd Don Quixote?) I must end (sayd hee) because I see it offends you, for if it were not for that, I had worke cut out for three dayes. Pray God, Sancho (quoth Don Quixote) that I may see thee dumbe before I die. According to our life (sayd Sancho) before you die, I shall be mumbling clay, and then perhaps I shall bee so dumbe, that I shall not speake a word till the end of the world, or at least till Domesday.

From John Owen, Salus electorum, Sanguis Jesu, or, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (1648):

Now the truth is, from this their profession, that they were bought by Christ, might the Apostle justly, and that according to the opinion of our Adversaries, presse these false Teachers by the way of aggravating their sinne: for the thing it selfe, their being bought, it could bee no more urged to them than to Heathens and Infidells that never heard of the name of the Lord Jesus. Now after all this, if our adversaries can prove universall Redemption from this Text, let them never despaire of successe in any thing they undertake, be it never so absurd, fond or foolish: but when they have wrought up the worke already cut out for them, and proved first, that the Lord is meant Christ as Mediator.

From Gilbert Ironside, Seven Questions of the Sabbath Briefly Disputed, After the Manner of the Schooles (1637):

To the fifteenth, it goes hard, when to resolve a case of conscience, men are forced to fly to Criticismes: But if here a man should deny, that〈in non-Latin alphabet〉doth signify an exchange, or putting of one thing in the room of another, store of work would be cut out for Grammarians. But this needs not, for that〈in non-Latin alphabet〉signifieth to retract, alter, reverse, as well as to exchange, every man knowes.

From Herbert Thorndike, Of the Government of Churches: A Discourse Pointing at the Primitive Form (1641):

For out of these passages are culled the gifts of Ruling or Helps in Government, and Ministring, the offices of Pastours, of Doctours or Teachers; upon presumption of the difference aforesaid, to argue, That the Ministeries appointed to continue in the Church till our Lords coming to judgement, are, that of Pastours, to preach in the Church; that of Rulers or Helps in the government, Elders of the people, to assist in Ruling; and last of all Doctours or Teachers, to reade lessons in point of Religion, not medling with Government; besides Deacons, to whom the gift of Ministring belongeth. Here it is plain, there is work cut out: And sure it is a fit place to take into consideration the first part of that Office we pretend to prove common to Bishop and Presbyters, consisting in labour in the word and doctrine, as it was in the Primitive time, and is understood by the Apostle: ...


Alwayes provided (since we must not now presume upon immediate inspirations, but expect Gods ordinary blessing upon humane indeavours) that men and abilities may be stored for the work before the work be cut out for them, so as the honour and reverence thereof may be preserved without offense.

From Christopher Love, A Christians Duty and Safety in Evill Times (1651/1653):

But thus briefly passing these things; I proceed to another Observation from these words, I pray not that you might be taken out of the world. Why would not Christ make this prayer? The cheif reason was because hee had more work for his Disciples to doe in the world. Hence observe: That it is not the desire of Jesus Christ that any of his servants should die, so long as he hath any worke for them to doe in this world. Not onely your dayes are numbred, not only is the number of your Months with God, but likewise the work that ye are to doe, which he hath cut out for you. Sayes God to a Minister, thou shalt preach so many Sermons, convert so many souls, gather in so many of mine Elect; and when thy work is done, thy life shall be done.

From Richard Baxter, Letters That Passed between Mr. Baxter and Mr. Tombes: Concerning the Dispute (1652):

To which end [resolving a debate privately] I offered to come over when you were at leasure, and your Neighbours agreed to send me word when was the fittest time, because you were much from home. But contrary to my expectation, as if all these motions were unreasonable, you still insist upon my doing the work which you cut out for me, and that directly in the way that you prescribe: yea, and you conclude that if I do not this,

  1. your people will take it for granted, that I can say no more for baptism then others have done in print.
  2. And that they will take that to be sufficiently answered, till it be shewed wherein your answers are defective.

It seems to me that the earliest of these figurative instances involve tasks or orders or duties or assignments to be performed, without particular attention to whether they are more or less difficult than any other order considered at random.

The 1606 instance from Arthur Dent is striking in that he emphasizes that the work he describes as "cut out" is work that will take a lifetime to accomplish—demanding work indeed. Dent also indicates that the expression is idiomatic by his day: "and as wée say worke enough cut out." In any case, the difficulty of the work cut out for someone becomes a fairly frequent aspect of use of the expression even in the 1600s, and it is not hard to see how the expression as commonly understood might easily have moved from an original sense of "this is what you have to work with, and there is no avoiding it or starting over at this point" to a later sense of "this is the work you have to do, and it is going to be difficult."


I always took it to mean ‘that someone was highlighting to another that they had a hard task ahead of them and that been made by others poor actions or decisions’. Again I assumed it originated from tailoring or pattern cutting completed poorly then another having to assemble work from a poorly cut piece of material.

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    Commented Apr 3 at 14:26

As the OED entry shows "cut out work" is work that has been prepared in advance by someone other than the person who will do it, e.g. I cut out 1,000 pieces of cloth; you sew them into a suit. Your work has been cut out for you.

P.2.a. P.2.a.i. to cut out work (for a person): to prepare work to be done by a person; to give a person something to do. In later use frequently in passive. Now rare.

Perhaps originally with metaphorical allusion to the preparation of fabric to be worked on;

1591 See then here is more worke cut out in this one Chapter, then they and their disciples will euer be able to do. G. B. A. F., translation of Discouery Subtiltie & Wisedome Italians xlvii. 74

1908 There is..enough work cut out to insure a comfortable degree of activity during the coming summer and fall. Manufacturers' Rec. 9 April 44/3

1934 He has certainly cut out work for himself now. Los Angeles Times 14 March ii. 4/3

This gave rise to


colloquial. to have one's work cut out (for one) and variants: to have enough to do; to have as much to do as one can manage, esp. in the time available; to be faced with a hard or lengthy task.

1822 Martin has his Summer work cut out, as he is matched to fight Ab Belasco (the best Jew fighter since Mendoza). Morning Post 13 March.

2010 ‘I've got my work cut out for me in the next week.’ ‘You love to be overloaded with writing assignments and to have piles of work surrounding you.’ B. T. Bradford, Playing Game xi. 96

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