Originally, a utensil for cutting shaped pieces out of dough. More recently, characterising a lack of originality.
The phrase 'cookie cutter', which is intended to epitomise a conformist attitude, lacking in originality, is of fairly recent American origin. An early example of its use in print comes from The Chicago Sunday Tribune, February 1922:
"There are always 'cookie cutter' tendencies among us. One of these this year is the caracul trimmed coat which every other woman in New York wears."
It, of course, alludes to the cooking utensils which are used to cut out cookie shapes for baking. These have been so called in the USA since at least the 19th century; for example, a item from A History of the North-western Soldiers' Fair, 1864, lists "15 cookie cutters" in an inventory.
The lack of take up of the figurative use of the phrase outside the USA is no doubt due to the fact that, in the UK at least, the term cookie is little used and, when it is, is limited to naming the soft 'chocolate chip cookies' which are favoured by American sales outlets like Starbucks and the like. Despite the innumerable references to cookie-jars and "that's the way the cookie crumbles" in US films and television series, US citizens might be surprised to know that many UK residents don't know what cookies are. (For any of us Brits still not in the know, they are what we call biscuits).
The 'cutting out' feature characterised by cookie cutters has caused the term 'cookie cutter' to be adopted in various fields:
- Most gruesomely, 'cookie cutters' bestow a nickname to Isistius Brasiliensis, a small shark of the Dalatiidae family, which is known as the cookie-cutter shark. This derives from the creature's habit of taking circular bites from its prey. It has been so-called since the 1970s, for example, in this piece from Richard Ellis' The Book of Sharks, 1976:
"There are stories of whales being caught with little round bites taken out of them, and... they are thought to have been made by Etmopterus, which the whalers call the 'cookie-cutter' shark."
- US sheriff's badges, presumably because of their shape, were called 'cookie cutters' since the early 20th century. Edwin Norwood's book The Other Side of the Circus, 1926, refers to this:
"Cookie-cutter - a sheriff's star-shaped badge"
- Makers of cheap, mass-produced clothing. In 1963, the New York Post referred to "The mass-production houses, with offices on Broadway" as "cookie-cutters".