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Cut from whole cloth

Posted by Smokey Stover on February 21, 2004

In Reply to: Cut from whole cloth posted by Smokey Stover on February 21, 2004

: : : Another phrase for which I am looking for the origin and meaning is "cut from whole cloth."

: : : I have seen this phrased generally used in two totally different senses:

: : : 1) fictitious, made-up

: : : 2) new and original, or springing up full-formed all at once without previous development

: : : Can canyone confirm whether both of these uses are correct?

: : CUT OUT OF WHOLE CLOTH - "Wholly false; without foundation of truth. Back in the fifteenth century, 'whole cloth' was used synonymously with 'broad cloth,' that is, cloth that ran the full width of the loom. The term dropped into disuse along in the eighteenth century, except in the figurative sense. In early use, the phrase retained much of the literal meaning, a thing was fabricated out of the full amount or extent of that which composed it.But by the nineteenth century it would appear that tailors or others who made garments were pulling the wool over the eyes of their customers, for, especially in the United States, the expression came to have just the OPPOSITE meaning. Instead of using whole material, as they advertised, they were really using patched or pieced goods, or, it might be, cloth which had been falsely stretched to appear to be of full width." From "A Hog on Ice" by Charles Earle Funke (1948, Harper & Row)

: The OED Online more or less confirms Funk's exegesis of the phrase. It describes the meaning "made up, fictitious" as an Americanism, and lumps all other uses under "various meanings" (all actually related to whole cloth as undivided, of course). SS

It is one thing to explain what a certain popular saying means, and quite another to explain why it means that. In the case of the phrase "made up out of whole cloth," I think the meaning is not so contradictory as it seems. A lie that is made up out of whole cloth is not one that consists of stretching the truth, nor one that is patched together from bits of truth and half-truths. It is a lie through and through, a complete lie from beginning to end, a seamless fabric of deception. Some of the explanations in this Forum (including my own) leave something to be desired, and it is all too tempting to simply let them pass unchallenged, when we should instead say "Bite your tongue!" I use this expression as an example. It does not mean "Remain silent" or "Keep mum," but rather "Fie on you for such a shameless (or harmful) utterance. Bite your tongue to punish it." This is nothing like "to bite one's lip," which one does to avoid betraying by means of facial expression an emotion one would rather conceal, such as the one which makes one cry. Mr. Funk, who has labored valiantly to explain all sorts of strange expressions, thought he had found a possible explanation of "There are many ways to skin a cat" in a physical maneuver called "Skin the cat" made by boys of his acquaintance at play. Impossible; the maneuver in question does not admit of much variation, and the group making it seems very limited in time and place. Very few people have ever heard of this boyish pastime, which does not seem to have a very long history.