A truncated idiom

From the 5/30 Economist, in “Republicans in name aussi” on Nicolas Sarkozy:

Even if the relaunch succeeds, however, Mr Sarkozy will have his work cut out.

Pretty clearly, the intention here is to convey ‘will have his work cut out for him’, that is ‘will have difficulty completing his work’, with the idiom have one’s work cut out for one, but here in a truncated variant. The shorter variant is simply not possible for me, though I can figure it out. It turns out that the shorter variant is specifically British. (Remember that the Economist is a British publication.)

Most idiom dictionaries list only the longer variant, have one’s work cut out for one. But the Cambridge Dictionaries Online: British English has this entry:

have your work cut out (for you) ‘to have something very difficult to do’: She’ll really have her work cut out to finish all those reports by the end of the week.

Two notes: on truncated idioms, and on the history of the Work Cut Out idiom.

Truncated idioms. Here the place to go on this blog is my 8/29/09 posting “May I truncate?”, where I (roughly) distinguish nonce truncations and conventionalized idiom truncations. On the former:

Nonce truncation is very common, especially with fixed expressions, where parts of them can “go without saying” because the expressions are fixed. It’s not hard to find occurrences of above and beyond without the call of duty in contexts where the longer expression is clearly intended, or the whole nine without yards in similar contexts. Proverbs and famous quotations are often truncated in this fashion: Oh, sharper than a serpent’s tooth.

But nonce, made-up-on-the-spot, expressions can themselves become fixed (though it’s not always easy to tell when this has happened, for individual speakers or groups of them). Candidates from my (appallingly large) file on truncations:

safe than sorry ‘better safe than sorry’
long story short ‘to make a long story short’
long and short ‘the long and short of it is’

Apparently, truncated have one’s work cut out has been conventionalized in BrE (but not AmE).

History. More complex that you might have thought. From Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words site:

Q From Gord Forsythe: When someone says, ‘He’s really got his work cut out for him,’ I take it to mean that he will have difficulty in successfully completing his work or task. But I would think that if he were a tailor, and had his work cut out for him, that would simplify his task.

A The origins of the phrase are somewhat obscure, as is so often the case with idioms.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry suggests it was first recorded in the sense in which we now understand it only around the middle of the nineteenth century. The first appearance in the sense of “to have (at least) as much as one can handle” recorded in the OED is in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, which was published in 1843. I’ve found some examples from the previous century, but their meaning is ambiguous.

That’s because the expression goes back at least to the early 1600s in a related form, “to have all one’s work cut out”. As you suggest, it was borrowed from tailoring, but in that first figurative sense it meant to prepare or plan an activity, to get everything organised before starting work, as a good tailor would. It later went through a period in which it meant that someone else cut out your work for you, that is, gave you something to do.

The image behind the current sense is that of having some assiduous assistant cutting the cloth at such a rate that it’s a struggle to keep up.

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