paper cut

For years it was clasped firmly in the embrace of a plastic device with a magnetic strip on the back, which allowed it to be displayed on a refrigerator (or other metal surface). But then it somehow slipped out and, being almost weightless, wafted away on some breath of a breeze, until eventually it was discovered by a visitor, on the floor far from the refrigerator.

It’s a Chinese paper cut, depicting my animal from the Chinese zodiac, the dragon:

A gift from the students in my 1985 classes at the Beijing Language Institute (as it was then).

Paper cut (also paper-cut or papercut) is an English count noun roughly synonymous with the count noun paper cutting ‘a cutting made from paper’ or paper cut-out, in this case specifically a decorative cutting or cut-out. (There is also a mass noun paper cutting ‘the action or activity of cutting paper’. The count nouns paper cut and paper cutting are not action or activity nouns, but result or product nouns.)

[Digression: There is also a count noun paper cut ‘a skin wound caused by a thin sharp material, as paper’ (from This is a straightforward N + N compound, with head N cut ‘skin wound’, a specialization of an old nouning of the verb cut. In the rest of this note I’ll disregard the ‘wound’ sense of paper cut.]

The analysis of the English count noun paper cut isn’t entirely clear. One possibility is that the cut in paper cut is a direct nouning of the verb cut, so that it would be parallel semantically to the cut-out of paper cut-out. Against this proposal is the fact that, unlike cut-out, cut doesn’t seem to be usable on its own to refer to a decorative cutting. (??They gave me two cuts, referring to decorative paper cuts, vs. They gave me two cut-outs.)

A second possibility is that the count noun paper cut is a back-formation from the compound paper cutting. But such back-formation standardly yields a verb, not a noun (many many examples of back-formed two-part verbs in postings on this blog), and there seems to be no established verb to paper cut (??They paper-cut for hours) — a pity, since it could then serve as the basis for a nouning paper cut.

Yet a third possibility is that the count noun paper cut is a calque, or loan translation, from Chinese — a possibility that is encouraged by the close association of the count noun with the Chinese folk art. My own impression is that the count noun paper cut is in fact “Chinese English”, but then that impression reflects my experience with the noun, which I’d encountered only from Chinese speakers of English as a second language, until I did a Google search. What we need is some history of this noun (as distinct from the ‘wound’ noun) in English, and this will take some work; at the moment, the ‘decoration’ noun hasn’t even made it into standard dictionaries of English, so far as I can tell.

Meanwhile, we have discussions like this one, from the Travel China Guide site, which sounds non-native (though it’s informative):

Paper-cut is a very distinctive visual art of Chinese handicrafts. It originated from the 6th century when women used to paste golden and silver foil cuttings onto their hair at the temples, and men used them in sacred rituals. Later, they were used during festivals to decorate gates and windows. After hundreds of years’ development, now they have become a very popular means of decoration among country folk, especially women.

The main cutting tools are simple: paper and scissors or an engraving knife

(The Wikipedia page uses paper cutting, in various senses, and cut-out, rather than paper cut.)

The Travel China Guide, in common with other sources, treats paper-cutting as a “visual art”, but also as a “handicraft”, a decorative craft, or a type of folk art (especially practiced by country folk and women) — that is, not simply as art. We are back to the “Is it art?” topic, which I return to again and again; see especially my remarks in “Art and Craft” (12/29/13) on the works of Ruth Asawa, sometimes dismissed as merely handicraft (and by a woman to boot).

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