In software engineering, I sometimes see "first cut" in a context where it could mean "first version".

Is it some idiom? Where does it come from? Does it mean literally "first version", or is there any emotional subtext, or did I misunderstand its meaning completely?

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    @NigelJ but the pre-industrial examples in that search have nothing to do with grass, and most have nothing to do with any form of agriculture.
    – phoog
    May 8, 2023 at 1:49
  • @NigelJ below the ngram there are some buttons with ranges of years for this purpose.
    – phoog
    May 8, 2023 at 10:48
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    Purely FTR, I have never, ever, ever heard that used with software. I think you're simply wrong, or misheard it. (As it happens, I work in both film/tv, and, software.)
    – Fattie
    May 8, 2023 at 12:45
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    Great! Just understand that it is a term from film and TV production. It's totally commonplace in English to use a phrase evocatively in different fields or ways. Cheers!
    – Fattie
    May 8, 2023 at 14:12
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    FWIW, @Fattie, I am pretty familiar with the term "first cut" as an initial version of pretty much anything that is expected to be subject to further refinement. Definitely including software, in which context I sometimes use the term myself. Its origins are undoubtedly in the film industry, but neither I nor anyone in my immediate circle has any affiliation with TV or film production. May 8, 2023 at 17:23

5 Answers 5


It simply means a first (presumably complete in some way, such as an alpha version or minimum viable product) version of the software or documentation which is expected to require further work before it is finalized. The origin is in the film industry.

  1. Rough Cut and Variations The rough cut can take up to three months to complete. Each editor works differently. Sometimes the editor works alone and shows the day or weeks work to the director and producer, Sometimes the editor and director work together, discussing every nuance.

In the rough cut, the scenes are placed in order and checked for continuity. This all-important step in the editing process allows for revisions and new ideas to be tried and tested.

Hint: Make the edit points between the scenes very obvious in order to emphasise the ‘roughness’. Failure to do so may result in the editor committing to an edit before it is ready.

  1. First Cut The first cut is the rough cut that is accepted by the editor, the director and the producer. Selection and sequence are basically fixed, although changes can still be made. The later film is visible. Detailed fine cut starts out from its proportions, structures, rhythms and emphasises them. Hint: Never be afraid to let the first cut ‘rest’ for a few days so everyone involved can see it with fresh eyes.

We can see a fairly early example (by software and Internet standards - February of 1971) in this document, which is not actually referring to software but to specifications for software:


1    Introduction

       This paper describes a first cut at a proposed Telnet protocol.
   _Telnet_ is a process which runs at a _user's_ _site_ and allows him
   to utilize a typewriter-like terminal to gain interactive service
   from a remote _server_ _site over the ARPA Network. 

I have also heard "rough cut" in this context but I don't think there is a strong distinction between the two terms in the context of software. They both refer to something that is clearly unfinished but adequate to be discussed, evaluated and improved upon (slightly different than the film industry definition).

  • "It simply means ..." no, it's a metaphor. "The origin is ..." the actual literal meaning of a metaphor isn't an "origin", it's just the meaning. (Note that in your example of an academic paper, where the academic paper is described as a first cut - they are using a metaphor.)
    – Fattie
    May 10, 2023 at 11:12
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    @Fattie I would hold that once the users are no longer conscious of the origins of the phrase, as they are using it, it becomes etymology and is no longer a metaphor. Is "book" a metaphor because it originated from the wood used to carve runes? May 10, 2023 at 14:27
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    Spehro - you're 100% correct of course. Metaphors can become "an 'actual' word". Interestingly, "edit" is a very bad metaphor for film assembly. You can "edit" a still picture (imagine retouching), you can edit some text, but you can not edit film, you can only "assemble" it different ways (ie, by changing the order/selection of the frames used). Hence "edit" was, or is, a metaphor (from writing) for film cutting, but, "edit" is now the word we use. (Edit, in the film context, has a totally different meaning from edit, in the text context - but both meanings are now in the dictionary.) ...
    – Fattie
    May 10, 2023 at 15:02
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    In the specific example at hand, any functioning human alive today would know that "first cut" is a film industry term. (Just for example, you often see "Director's Cut" on, you know, Ridley Scott films and such!) And they would thus realize, as they utter the words "first cut", they're making a kind of clever joke or reference. It's inconceivable (as we write, 2023) that there's anyone so non-functioning who doesn't realize it's a joke/reference. (Exactly as when one of my colleagues refers to her oldest kid as a "first draft".) So, it's a joke/metaphor.
    – Fattie
    May 10, 2023 at 15:06
  • (Obviously, and of course, a non-English speaker may not have a clue what the utterance "first cut" means in any way - hence the question. The answer being "it's a TV industry term" and "it's being used as a metaphor".) {Then, as perhaps yourself is pointing out, you assert "it's fairly commonly used as a metaphor" and indeed you further have pointed out "it could be a word in 20 years".} [Exactly as for example, when people say "filmed in Hollywood" now (ie, on digital equipment) extremely few people realize "film" is doubly-removed from the original meaning.]
    – Fattie
    May 10, 2023 at 15:09

The first cut is the rough cut that is accepted by the editor, the director and the producer [of a film, usually without sound, music, or titles]. Selection and sequence are basically fixed, although changes can still be made. The later film is visible. Detailed fine cut starts out from its proportions, structures, rhythms and emphasises them.
From The 6 stages of editing as a film director

In the earliest days of filmmaking, directors had to cut the film stock apart with scissors and then tape it back together to create new sequences.
From Adobe

In the context of software, I have never heard this term in my entire career in that domain. But, it is clear that the expression refers to an alpha version of the software (possibly a pre-alpha version, see Software release cycle at Wikipedia).

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    +1 to this. OP's colleague has used an incorrect metaphor to describe software. He clearly means 'first pass' or 'first iteration'
    – Richard
    May 7, 2023 at 20:13
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    It wasn't just the earliest days: most movies were still filmed just 15 years ago, so that means cutting and pasting (though with better tools).
    – RonJohn
    May 7, 2023 at 23:08
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    @Richard It's not an incorrect metaphor, it's quite common in a number of countries I've worked in
    – Mohirl
    May 8, 2023 at 11:45
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    In film production, it has utterly, utterly, utterly, utterly nothing to do with baseball. Anyone can instantly google why "cut" means "edit" in film-making.
    – Fattie
    May 8, 2023 at 12:49
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    @Richard It would be an incorrect literal statement. But since it's a metaphor, it's perfectly fine. "Can you come up with a query for the new report?" "It's not really my strong suite, but I'll take a swing at it." Some time later, "Here is a first cut of the query you wanted, can you take a look at it and tell me if it fills the bill?" This is fine, even if the report in question doesn't involve card games, baseball, film making, or theater. May 9, 2023 at 21:43

Adding to Graffito's answer, I've encountered the term many times in UK software development organisations. First cut software is certainly pre-alpha, and usually never seen outside the development team.

It usually means "The first version that works well enough to evaluate." When you're doing something that's new to you, you quite often want to see at an early stage if what you're doing actually makes sense. Does the UI provide the necessary controls? Does the algorithm run at a plausible speed? What is obviously missing? What is clearly unnecessary, when you try using it?

A first cut may be explicitly a prototype, intended to guide the design of a real implementation, or it may be intended to be developed into a real product. Irrespective of that, it's a test for the practicality of a concept, which lets you see if you're on a plausible path, or if you need to rethink your approach.

A first cut may be a formal part of a development process, or it may simply be the stage at which a developer first wants to show their work to a colleague or a supervisor, to get a second opinion.

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    It's a bit hard to define what could be considered "wrong" when talking about language. For me, an independent report which mentions a figure of speech I heard is very valuable. If someone has never heard that particular expression, that's also a bit valuable, but much less.
    – anatolyg
    May 8, 2023 at 13:03
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    The overwhelming facts are (1) it is an everyday, absolutely established term in film production. I believe OP is not aware of that. (2) It is not commonly used in app/software production. Really, that's that.
    – Fattie
    May 8, 2023 at 13:42
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    It is not universally used in software work, but do you have grounds for saying it is not common? The fields of software production where I've encountered it have very little to do with films or TV, making it plausible they'd use the term incorrectly. May 8, 2023 at 13:51
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    @Fattie I doubt it's anything to do with young programmers, if anything I would guess it is older people who use more "literary" or "academic" phrasing. Here are a few examples from different contexts, you can see it has a long history of general usage: link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-0-387-21623-2_2 eng.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Civil_Engineering/… nytimes.com/2000/01/23/opinion/… lawreview.uchicago.edu/print-archive/… May 8, 2023 at 15:00
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    @Fattie I wouldn't say it's a software term per se but rather a business term which has spread to common usage. You will find lots of use of the phrase "first cut" to refer to a draft version of a text document or even a rough expression of an idea. It appears in an O'Reilly book on data migration referring to "first cut of a migration plan" (book was published in 2012 so perhaps the author is young since I haven't bought a technical book published after 1998). I think it's hard to argue that software isn't essentially text documents or software development isn't a business activity.
    – slebetman
    May 9, 2023 at 10:00

"First cut" is a term used in film and TV production.

Headline question:

What does "first cut" mean?

It means editing a film. (The word "cut" is used because with old-style plastic film, you literally cut it with a pair of scissors to edit the film.)

The answer and the only answer to the question "What does "first cut" mean?" is "editing film or TV shows".

The fact that the OP overhead it used in an engineering or software field - is irrelevant. It's utterly commonplace in English to re-use phrases extremely flexibly in totally disparate situations.


I've seen it a lot with documents (memos, policies, essays, even PowerPoints or engineering drawing pages) in the US military and consulting firms (which can be a little slang-y).

It just means first version, without much negative or positive feeling. Maybe a slight connotation of just taking a hack at something (cut is a little colloquial). It would not seem strange to me in the context of software or a website or even a physical prototype. I wouldn't even blink or notice odd word choice. (Just my experience, from a US gen X military and corporate perspective.)

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