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I am wondering how the phrase "to cut someone down to size" came to mean what it does. I'm not sure if it is true but I read somewhere that the origin of the phrase goes back to the Middle English story of King Arthur cutting off a giant's legs at the knees. Also, I don't know how common the phrase is in American English.

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    Not according to The Idioms: << The first known use of the phrase dates back to the 1800s. During this time, it was used to describe the act of killing or incapacitating someone. >> ... << It has only been used to describe insulting someone since the early 1900s. >> Jun 10, 2020 at 11:40
  • The King Arthur origin is almost certainly a folk etymology; then sniff test is “is it colorful; does it index it in the impenetrable mists of history [where people don’t realize King Arthur didn’t even speak English, and his hagiographers spoke a dramatically different English]; is it too perfectly-packaged, no accidents of history, no warts, no changes since origin; and did I hear it from Joe or the OED”. The idiom is not like “kick the bucket” where the semantics don’t arise directly from the meaning of the component words; it’s a straightforward metaphor, & likely a straightforward origin.
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 10, 2020 at 11:44
  • @DanBron - I would have cited the source if I had remembered where I read the King Arthur story. Nobody said King Arthur was the first person who used the phrase. Maybe the phrase was only inspired by the story in Latin. Maybe!
    – Nick08
    Jun 10, 2020 at 12:12
  • @Nick08 - the King Arthur story is told here theidioms.com/cut-downIn the Middle English story of King Arthur, the king kills a giant. First he cut off his legs at the knees, literally cutting him down to size, and before dispatching him with Excalibur basically taunts him in Buffy the Vampire Slayer style, and this is a rough translation of the Middle English, “you are too tall by half, to be honest I hate that. You’ll be much more handsome at this height…
    – user 66974
    Jun 10, 2020 at 12:19
  • @user121863 - That's right. Thanks!
    – Nick08
    Jun 10, 2020 at 12:26

4 Answers 4

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The idiomatic expression does not appear to be as old as Middle Ages.

According to Etymonline it is the figurative usage of the literal one:

To cut (someone or something) down to size is from 1821 as "reduce to suitable dimensions;" the figurative sense, "reduce to the proper level of importance," is by 1927.

From The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy, Volume 11 - Samuel Flagg Bemis. 1927

Wood wished to cut him down to size. Ainsworth knew it, and chose as a time for rebellion the moment when Wood and Stimson sought to abolish the bimonthly muster roll.....

According to GDoS it is of black AmE origin:

cut someone down (v.):

(orig. US black) to challenge, with the intention of proving one’s superiority, usu. in the context of verbal, dancing or musical competitions.

  • 1946 [US] Mezzrow & Wolfe Really the Blues 231: All the contenders for the title [...] wanted to cut him down – that is, prove they were the best in the field.

  • 1954 [US] Hepster’s Dict. 2: Cut you down – Put somebody in place.

  • 1968 [US] G. Cuomo Among Thieves 216: It was to your benefit that someone like Penney tried to fag you early, as long as you could cut him down. The word got around, and people left you alone.

  • 1994 [US] N. McCall Makes Me Wanna Holler (1995) 329: They cut her down without batting an eye.

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Used in a literal sense, "cut [something] down to size" was not uncommon by the first decade of the twentieth century as an idiomatic way of saying "reduce something to the proper size by trimming the excess material from it." For example, from "Machine Composition," in The Inland Printer, American Lithographer (July 1906):

You will get only a fair alignment of the columns in this way, as it is not possible to get an absolutely correct justification of the first column. The only way in a multiplicity of columns is to set each section requiring independent justification on separate slugs and cut them down to size.

And from an advertisement for J.H. Miner Saw Works in The St. Louis Lumberman (July 1, 1909):

SLASHER SAWS.

Send us your worn out circulars. We will cut them down to size wanted, give you the shape and number of teeth you want, regrind, bore and drill the center to fit at one-half the net price of new saws. Remember that they will be reground the same as new.

In a figurative sense, however, the expression seems to have emerged by the early 1920s—and the earliest example I have been able to find comes from prizefighting. From "A Mystery: Is Dempsey His Right Name? Some People Say No," in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Arrow (July 8, 1921), reprinted from the New York Telegram:

In the first sixty seconds Dempsey ripped into Morris and cut him down to size. In the second round, in a clinch, he looked over Morris' shoulder and said to Murray: "Am I doing all right?"

Murray nodded. Then Dempsey cut loose. In the third round Morris, beaten, fouled Dempsey. The referee started to award the fight to the kid, who protested against taking the fight on a foul, and when the fight went on, cut Morris to ribbons.

The next-earliest match involves bullfighting. From Ernest Hemingway, "The Undefeated" (1927):

Zurito rode by, a bulky equestrian statue. He wheeled his horse and faced him toward the toril on the far side of the ring where the bull would come out. It was strange under the arc-light. He pic'ed in the hot afternoon sun for big money. He didn't like this arc-light business. He wished they would get started.

Manuel went up to him.

"Pic him, Manos," he said. "Cut him down to size for me."

"I'll pic him, kid," Zurito spat on the sand. "I'll make him jump out of the ring."

Christime Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013) has this brief entry for the expression:

cut down to size; knock down to size. Reduce the self-importance of, humble, as in He's so arrogant—I wish someone would cut him down to size, or She really got knocked down to sizewhen her class ranking slipped. {Early 1900s}

There is, however, one very striking instance of the expression from much earlier. From a review of J. Horne Tooke's The Diversions of Purley (1805) in The Monthly Review (December 1806):

Mr. Tooke here takes occasion to expose certain alterations that have been wantonly made in the text of Shakspeare, and to vindicate the original reading ; which effects in his usual superior manner, while he treats the critics with his accustomed severity:

'The first Folio, in my opinion, is the only edition worth regarding. And it is much to be wished, that an edition of Shakspeare were given literatim according to the first Folio ; which is now become so scarce and dear, that few people can obtain it. For, by the presumptuous licence of the dwarfish commentators, who are for ever cutting him down to their own size, we risque the loss of Shakspeare's genuine text ; which that Folio assuredly contains ; notwithstanding some some few slight errors of the press, which might be noted, without altering.'

Here we have a figurative instance from Britain in 1805 of "cutting someone down to size" (more or less) that aligns very well with modern usage, but it seems unlikely to have been the direct antecedent of the figurative usage that arose a century later in the United States.

In my opinion, Jonathon Green's note that the phrase "cut someone down" (mentioned in user 66974's answer) is of "US black" origin has little relevance to the origin of "cut [someone] down to size" because the latter expression is at least 26 years older than the earliest instance of the former one (which is from 1947) in Green's account.

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The origin can be as old as the Ancient Greek mythology which has a similar story, of the Bed of Procrustes. Procrustes (Greek: Προκρούστης Prokroustes, "the stretcher [who hammers out the metal]") was a rogue smith and bandit from Attica who attacked people by stretching them or cutting off their legs, so as to force them to fit the size of an iron bed.

The word "Procrustean" is thus used to describe situations where different lengths or sizes or properties are fitted to an arbitrary standard.

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    Any credible source?
    – Nick08
    Jun 10, 2020 at 11:44
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It originated in Elizabethan times where if someone turned up at court and their ruffle was too large the queen would have someone cut it down to size, hence the saying

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