Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Measure Twice, Cut Once

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 14, 2014

Most of us have heard the expression measure twice, cut once and although it makes sense in a literal sense, in a figurative sense it also makes sense. If you’ve heard this said, it was probably said as a warning to another to plan and prepare for something in a careful, thorough manner before taking action. In other words, think before you act.

Whether it’s a mistake cutting a piece of wood or a mistake of another sort, not taking the time to make sure of what you’re doing will cost you time or money, and most likely both.

On page 76 of the book “Bible 2.0” by Nathan Smithe, published on 20 April 1969, the expression appears in such a way that the meaning is clear-cut. The book itself, however, is a little less clear. It’s a rewriting of the Bible in what is supposed to be satire. In fact, if you look it up online, the book’s description alleges that it’s the story of “God and Jebus and The Holy Toaster and Gilberto McCheasyfries the Sheep and a slew of others.”

Some will say it’s sacrilegious while others will say it’s the best version of the Bible yet. But regardless of where you sit in the religious discussion, the book certainly shakes things up with the first verse that begins very simply with: “In the beginning there was nothing, and then God was all like, “Wassup …” Well, you get the idea.

But you know what? Skip the coffee. I don’t trust you to get it right. You’d probably spit in it but you’d spit in a wrong amount. There’s a wrong and a right way to do everything. ‘Measure twice, cut once‘ that’s what Jeffrey Duhmur would always say. Boy that guy has some stories. Fascinating guy. His breath stinks though. Seriously get that guy a tic-tuc! And another …” God said.

While the expression is measure twice, cut once is an English proverb, the Russian proverb is measure seven times, cut once. But in the book “A Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Familiar Phrases Based On MacIntosh’s Collection” first published in Edinburgh in 1785, it states that the idiom is based on the older Gaelic expression: Better measure short of seven, than spoil all at once.  For those who familiar with kilts, a kilt for a grown man takes seven yards and so it’s easy to see why it would be important to measure the yardage twice lest an unfortunate situation arise.

Numerous sources state that the adage is from Medieval times, and was used by carpentry guilds as much as by tailors, however, none provided proof to substantiate their claims. That being said, it was listed in books at the end of the 19th century as a Cheshire proverb that was used in 1688 as “score twice before you cut once” … again without a reference as to where this information was found.

However, Idiomation found the autobiography of Italian goldsmith, sculptor, draftsman, soldier and musician, Benvenuto Cellini (3 November 1500 – 13 February 1571). Benvenuto Cellini started writing his autobiography in 1558, and just before his last trip to Pisa in 1563, he stopped writing. It can be assumed that in 1560, the idiom existed but with seven as the magic number for measuring, and not two. The idiom was found in this passage:

While he and the others were inspecting them, taking up now the dies and now the medals in their hands, I began to speak as submissively as I was able: “If a greater power had not controlled the working of my inauspicious stars, and hindered that with which they violently menaced me, your Holiness, without your fault or mine, would have lost a faithful and loving servant. It must, most blessed Father, be allowed that in those cases where men are risking all upon one throw, it is not wrong to do as certain poor and simple men are wont to say, who tell us we must mark seven times and cut once. Your Holiness will remember how the malicious and lying tongue of my bitter enemy so easily aroused your anger, that you ordered the Governor to have me taken on the spot and hanged; …

Idiomation was unable to trace back earlier than 1560. That it was used in a biography during the Medieval era, however, proves that this was indeed a maxim that was well-known and to which guilds adhered. The exact date of the idiom in any of its incarnations is unknown. If readers or visitors to this blog are able to share an earlier published version of measure twice, cut once, please feel free to do so in the comments section below.

Advertisements

5 Responses to “Measure Twice, Cut Once”

  1. mutanatia said

    Hmm…you know, the first time I actually heard this expression (to the best of my recollection) was in wood shop class in middle school. I forget the exact variation of the theme, but it was something like “double check before you cut because you can’t take that back.” Good memories. Thanks 🙂

  2. […] corner. Panes of plexiglass will bow and bend in weird ways you never thought possible. Despite measuring twice and cutting once, things won’t match up. You will be doing this on the hottest day of the year, and the doors […]

    • Fritz Cooper said

      Every element and substance has a coefficient of linear expansion. On hotter than average days things expand, and on colder days they contract. Cut the components of work you are doing on the same day you are assembling. I learned this formula in high school physics class. It is “Delta L / L((Delta T))” or “Change in Length” divided by (“Length” times “Change in Temperature)). Source: “The College Handbook of Chemistry and Physics”.

  3. […] “While the expression is measure twice, cut once is an English proverb, the Russian proverb is measure seven times, cut once. But in the book “A Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Familiar Phrases Based On MacIntosh’s Collection” first published in Edinburgh in 1785, it states that the idiom is based on the older Gaelic expression: Better measure short of seven, than spoil all at once. For those who familiar with kilts, a kilt for a grown man takes seven yards and so it’s easy to see why it would be important to measure the yardage twice lest an unfortunate situation arise.” Elyse Bruce. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: