The Cut:   The Ultimate & Final Social Weapon

The cut to which I refer is, of course, the dreaded cut direct, though there is some debate regarding its name during our favorite period. The cut has made its appearance in a great many Regency novels beginning with those first Regencies written by Georgette Heyer. But a cut was not a mere snub. It was the ultimate social weapon, the final solution. To our Regency ancestors, the cut was not something to be used lightly, for its use signaled the absolute termination of a relationship. The cutting of the bonds of friendship. And there were rules about when and where the cut should be used, and who could use it. Failure to conform to these rules would be considered a serious breach of etiquette which might well do more damage to the cutter than the cuttee.

The origin and rules of the social cut …

Manners, etiquette, social conventions. Regardless of what you call them, these rules and practices were developed over many centuries in order to enable groups of people to interact with civility and gentility, regardless of their many differences. Initially, these rules were instituted to prevent outbreaks of violence and bloodshed when parties of different factions came together. By the Regency, they had become guidelines for social behavior which were intended to ensure the ease and comfort of everyone gathered at any event. All those present at these events were expected to comply with the rules of etiquette and decorum as one of their obligations to the society of which they were members.

In most societies, there were various levels of punishment which might be imposed on those who broke the rules. In Regency England, the most severe social punishment was the cut. In many Regency novels, this action is typically called the "the cut direct." However, that phrase is not defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, though it does appear there in a quote from Thackeray, dated 1848. According to Eric Partridge, in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, the use of the phrase "cut direct" is attested in print in 1820. Most linguistic scholars believe that a word or phrase can be in use in spoken language for as long as fifty years before it makes its way into print. Georgette Heyer used the term "cut direct" in several of her novels with Regency settings. It is certain that she had a copy of Pierce Egan’s Tom and Jerry: Life in London in her personal library, which was published in 1821. Egan uses the term "cut direct" in that book. Heyer is known to have done a great deal of research in collections of private papers. Collections which may not have come to the attention of the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary. She may well have found that term used in private letters or journals to which she had access which pre-dated Egan. Such a discovery would have assured her that she could legitimately use that term in her books. Therefore, though the term "cut direct" is not specifically defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, I believe that Regency authors can feel confident using the term "cut direct" in their stories, since the evidence suggests that term was in use during that decade.

Now that we have a name for this ultimate social weapon, it is time to explain when and where it first came into use, as well as how it was used. Despite the ancient history of manners and etiquette in general, the social cut is much more modern. There is no doubt the social cut originated in England during the eighteenth century. Some authorities believe the practice originated in the early decades of the century, when fashionable society began to frequent public resorts like Bath and Weymouth, or the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall and Ranelagh. Other sources suggest that the cut was not used regularly until the latter decades of the century. The Monthly Magazine, Or, British Register for 1798 included an explanation by a reader of how the cut was carried out in his college days in a lengthy letter to the editor, signed by the pseudonym "Ansonius." In his rambling letter, Ansonius noted that when he was at college, " … if a man passed an old acquaintance wittingly, without recognizing him, he was said— ‘To cut him.’" Ansonius then went on to explain the performance of the cut and noted that for a time the term "to spear" was used instead of to cut. However, that term did not remain long in use, and this act was generally known as "the cut" ever after.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, the cut had been adopted as a social weapon by the beau monde. At this time, the true cut direct was not just a snub, or a failure to recognize an acquaintance when encountering them. The cut direct was a deliberate act; in a sense, it reversed the accepted ritual of greeting, thereby signalling the cutting of all bonds of relationship between the two parties involved. The two parties would be considered as dead to one another from the moment of the cut. The person delivering the cut direct would make eye contact with the other party upon meeting them, acknowledging their bow or salutation with nothing but a hard stare and a stony silence. To be a true cut direct, there must be no doubt that cutter was fully aware of the presence of the cuttee and was deliberately cutting them.

Even before the Regency began, a set of rules for the use of the cut direct had developed. A gentleman was never to cut a lady, regardless of the provocation. If he wished to sever the connection, he was expected to find a more private means to accomplish that end. It was considered very bad form to cut anyone on the street. In fact, a cut was never to be used unless the person being cut was guilty of some excessively rude, unendurable act which demanded the termination of the relationship. In such cases, if the rude act was public knowledge, the use of the cut would be supported by the majority of society. Even with extreme provocation, the cut was not only a high insult to the recipient, it was also very embarrassing for those who might witness it, so it should be used sparingly and only when there was no other choice, out of respect for anyone else who might be present. A gentleman could cut another gentlemen, but there were instances when such a cut lead to a duel, yet another reason to use it judiciously.

Ladies could use the cut direct, but there were rules which they were expected to follow. An unmarried lady was never to cut a married lady. Any lady could cut a gentleman, but only with very grave provocation. In particular, the cut direct was the last resort for young unmarried ladies when they wished to discourage the unwanted attentions of a gentleman. If the gentleman’s unwelcome attentions had been marked by the young lady’s friends and acquaintances, she would have their full support when she delivered the cut direct to him at a social event. She would also usually have the support of the majority of those present, regardless of how uncomfortable such a scene made most people. All but the most obtuse gentleman would have to cease their attentions to a young lady who had cut them at a social gathering.

It was considered extremely rude to cut, or even to simply ignore, one’s dressmaker, milliner, tailor, boot-maker, book-binder, or other tradesman whom one employed when encountering them in public. Lengthy conversation was not required, but a courteous greeting was expected of a truly well-mannered person in such situations. It was completely unacceptable for a host to cut guests, for any reason. Leaders of society, in particular, were expected to refrain from the use the cut direct except in response to the most disgraceful behaviour. The use of the cut towards someone new to society, especially by a prominent social superior, could destroy the newcomer’s hopes of being accepted into polite society. Most responsible and considerate social doyens would find some means other than the cut direct to indicate to a social inferior that they had stepped out of line. There were, of course, a few spiteful, malevolent people who abused their power and employed the cut direct whenever it suited them, with no thought to the harm they might inflict.

Perhaps the worst and most public example of a social superior mis-using the power of the cut direct was when the Prince Regent cut Beau Brummell the night of the ball in the Argyle Rooms. Though the Regent was not on good terms with Brummell, the Beau had done nothing so heinous that it would merit such severe treatment. Especially at that particular ball, of which Brummell was one of the hosts. The Prince believed he could cut Beau Brummell with impunity since it was bad form for a host to insult a guest and Brummell would not be able to respond in kind. But the Regent had not counted on the Beau’s independent spirit, nor had the Prince counted on the fact that most of society saw his cut of Brummell as an appalling abuse of his social power. In most cases, the cut direct delivered by a royal personage would have destroyed the recipient’s place in society. But the Prince Regent’s petty and vengeful use of this powerful social weapon against someone who was not in a position to defend himself disgusted most members of the beau monde and actually did more damage to the Prince than it did to Beau Brummell. In the end, it was the Beau’s terrible luck at the gambling tables that finally cost him his position in London society, not the cut direct delivered to him by the Regent.

The social cut originated in England during the eighteenth century and was elevated to the ultimate social weapon in the armory of the beau monde by the beginning of the Regency. Even Jane Austen made use of the social cut, in Sense and Sensibility, when Willoughby tells Elinor Dashwood that Sir John Middleton had cut him since his marriage to his wealthy wife. The cut remained an English institution and does not appear to have been used in other countries before or during the Regency. Though the cut direct is often found in the Regency novels of today, it was used very sparingly during the Regency itself, as its use signaled the end of a relationship between the two parties involved. The use of the cut direct was also embarrassing those who were in the vicinity when it was delivered. For that reason, someone planning to employ the cut direct would only do so if it was absolutely necessary, to ensure it used did not backfire on them.

Dear Regency Authors, the cut direct should be used most sparingly in your stories, for it meant the complete severing of a relationship between two people. Its use could lead to unintended but serious consequences, as there are a few instances in which a duel resulted when one gentleman cut another. Should a person cut someone when such a radical action was not considered appropriate by the majority of society, the cut might well backfire on the cutter, who might then find they were ostracized, rather than the person they cut. Though ladies had more leeway with the use of the social cut, there were still certain conventions by which they must abide when using a cut, in order to maintain the support of society for their actions. Since the cut direct was not used or understood by those outside England, the delivery of a cut to a foreigner, or in the presence of one or more, might result in a very interesting scene of confusion.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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23 Responses to The Cut:   The Ultimate & Final Social Weapon

  1. Interesting! I often read Regency novels (Mary Balogh and Jane Austen) and had no idea that the cut direct had specific rules.

    It was also interesting to learn that the Prince used it against Beau Brummell. Looks like a bad PR move on the Prince’s part. I’m not surprised that the beau monde supported Brummell.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I was rather surprised myself to find there were rules to using the cut. I was also surprised to learn how very serious it was considered to be by society. I had always thought of it as just a social snub. But our Regency ancestors saw it as a very serious act.

      Sadly for the Prince Regent, I think he did not really grasp how he was perceived by many of his subjects. He had surrounded himself with toadies and let his idea of power go to his head. What a waste, since he was not a stupid man.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. Most interesting. I did not know that giving the cut could even lead to a duel. That explains why in some novels, when a male character accidentially cuts another, he always offers sincere apologies.
    I especially enjoyed the set of rules for the use of the cut. An unmarried lady is never to cut a married lady… What a peculiar think rank is 😉
    Thank you, Kathryn!

    Anna M. Thane (who will be off to England tomorrow. Happy!)

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Learning that the cut could lead to a duel is what really drove home to me how serious the cut was considered in Regency times. It would never have occurred to me that someone would risk their life over such a thing, but honor was paramount to a true Regency gentleman and the cut was the ultimate insult. You are quite right about the offering of sincere apologies after an unintentional cut. There were even suggestions in some of the sources I found about just how to make such apologies and how they were to be received. Both parties were urged to be gracious and sincere, which makes perfect sense, when you understand that failure to do so could end with the two men on the field of honor early one morning.

      One thing which became clear to me in my research was that social superiors were expected to be conscious of their power to hurt those of lesser rank and to do so only when there was no other choice. Although, I wonder if the reason that an unmarried lady could not cut a married one was that the married lady was essentially an extension of her husband, and any slight to the wife was also a slight to the husband. So, that rule may have existed for the protection of young, unmarried women. Just my $0.02

      Have a wonderful time in England. I really hope you enjoy your driving lessons!

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Thanks for the good wishes. I will remember your advise to be calm.
        I am also booked for a half-day course in falconry. It will be a very special vacation… .
        Regards

        Anna M. Thane

      • Elizabeth Huber says:

        I suspect that the difference in rank between married and unmarried women would mean that a social inferior cutting a superior would be effectively claiming equality, upsetting the rigid social order. A lesser person must not rebuke her betters.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          That is an interesting take. My reading was that the rule was to protect unmarried women from the wrath of a married woman’s husband when he learned that his wife, and thus, indirectly, he had been cut.

          Regards,

          Kat

  3. Suzi Love says:

    Great post, Kat. The whole idea of the cut and the power behind it, and the damage it could cause, reminds me of the way social media is sometimes used now eg a twitter bullying campaign.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you liked the post. Thanks for stopping by.

      I don’t use twitter, but it does seem to me that though the means of communication may change, people are still pretty much the same. The mob mentality is still alive and easily manipulated when people do not think for themselves and fail to stand up for what is right, regardless of what their peers might do. Sadly, I think this rapid and faceless form of communication seems to bring out the worst in many people, since they can send such damaging messages without taking the time to think, and with little personal repercussion for their cruel words. Another reason to want to go back in time to the Regency!

      Regards,

      Kat

  4. Great post, Kat! In an unpublished novel I wrote I had an older brother (a duke) giving the cut direct to his younger brother. He had extremely good reasons for doing so, but after reading your post I now think he probably wouldn’t have done so because the action would have reflected badly on HIM instead of the brother. Something to think about if I ever decide to dust that story off:-)

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You are right, when someone of higher rank cut someone of lower rank, it was considered rather bad form. Plus, since the person being cut was family, regardless of any bad blood between them, that made it all the worse. Your duke would most certainly have come off the worse for a cut, rather than the brother, no matter the provocation.

      However, you could have the younger brother try to get his elder brother to cut him in public, in an attempt to get the duke in hot water with the ton. But the duke, being the better person, refuses to descend to that level. The real crux of the cut was actually looking at the person one was cutting and then turning away after making it clear they had seen the cuttee, but refusing to acknowledge them. There were a couple of writers who advised that if two people were on the outs, their friends and family should ensure they did not encounter one another at a social event, in order to avoid a cut. If your duke’s friends can keep him from actually looking at his brother, there is no cut and the duke comes off as a class act!

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. Good Luck with your story!

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Jeanne Garrett says:

        I am glad you mention the real crux of the cut…turning away after the person has seen you. Does the cut only apply to people you know? The reason I was looking at this site was in an attempt to define the cut, direct or otherwise, and to decide Mr. Darcy’s actions in Austen’s P&P. At the Assembly, Bingley points out to Mr. Darcy a Bennet sister that is not dancing. It says “and turning round, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till, catching her eye, he withdrew his own, and coldly said, ‘She is tolerable’…” and the rest of the famous line. Since D & E were not acquainted, was this then a snub rather than a cut? Other than ticking Elizabeth off for the rest of the book, how bad was his behavior?

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Based on my research, I would not consider Darcy’s action toward Elizabeth at the Assembly a cut, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, a gentleman was never to cut a lady, ever. Darcy was a paragon of good breeding and manners, so he would never have deliberately cut any woman, including Elizabeth. Also, they were not being introduced or conversing at that moment, which is when a cut would generally be delivered.

          Therefore, his action and response is a snub, but cannot be considered a cut. And, because his remark was intended only for Bingley, thus a private remark not made to the assembled company, though it rankled with Lizzie, it was not really a significant social offense.

          I hope that helps to clarify.

          Regards,

          Kat

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  8. melina says:

    what kind of offensive would merit the cut-direct? fascinating post, this is my first learning of this (led here by a recent miss manners post)

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Well, it would depend upon the time period, since the offense would typically be against the proper behavior of the time. For example, during the Regency (1811 – 1820) in England, if a man tried to take advantage of an unmarried young lady, or even if he spread rumors that he had, she, and probably her family, might cut the man in public. Today, most people would ignore it, or just file charges against the man.

      Another example, also from the Regency period, would be if a man was paying too much attention to a young lady, particularly if he was trying to get her to marry him. If she did not want to marry him, and told him so, but he kept after her, she might give him the cut-direct in public in order to shame him into leaving her alone. By so doing, she would show everyone that she wanted no further relationship with the man and only the worst boor would continue to pursue her.

      The Prince Regent cut Beau Brummell probably because he was afraid Brummell was more popular, and certainly more fashionable that he was. By cutting Brummell, the Regent hoped that people would ignore Brummell after that, but he miscalculated and people thought the Prince was so rude in cutting Brummell, that Brummell became even more popular.

      Thank you for stopping by, and I hope I have helped to answer your questions. If not, you are welcome to post more here.

      Regards,

      Kat

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