The Origin Behind The Phrase 'Have Your Work Cut Out'

There's a certain luxury in getting away with using casual phrases day to day without knowing exactly what those phrases mean — or meant at one point in time. 

"He's a good Samaritan."

"You're going to just have to bite the bullet."

"Every dog has his day, I suppose."

While their meaning is never lost on us, a second glance at the actual words we're using oftentimes looks rather obscure and puzzling, almost like parceled little riddles that have slipped into casual conversation covertly. For instance, what exactly does it mean to "have your work cut out for you?" Where did the phrase come from? Why are we "cutting out" anything while we're taking on a new task?

It's widely understood that the idiom originated in the 1600s when tailors were cutting out bits of fabric in preparation for a garment (via Word Histories) though its meaning has since changed almost completely as it was further absorbed into our cultural lexicon. You could almost say we've "tailored" it to our needs.

Dressing up the definition

When "having your work cut out for you" first evolved into a more causal usage, to do so meant being well-prepared to complete whatever was in front of you with the appropriate tools and amount of time to do so, like a dressmaker sitting before their mindfully crafted pieces of cloth.

As time went by, the general meaning of the phrase shifted. Whereas it first meant that you were at an advantage, the 1800s introduced a new interpretation: the task at hand was an overbearing and strenuous one (via The Grammarist). Essentially, it started to mean the opposite of what it originally implied, and it's more or less the idiom's modern denotation as we hear it used casually in our everyday lives.

Though it sometimes goes unnoticed, there's often a deeper meaning and longer history to the words we employ. When it comes to unpacking what they really mean, we certainly have our work cut out for us.