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What Does It Mean to Be a "Cut above"?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 23, 2024
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"A cut above" is a popular English saying that conveys a sense of superior quality. Typically, the idiom is used to describe people, places, or situations in which some factor is considered exceptional and above average. Generally considered a compliment, to be a cut above is to be in the forefront and generally more desirable than the competition. Depending on the setting, there may be general agreement to that effect without any need to present evidence. At other times, there will be a need to identify exactly why the subject under discussion is in fact a cut above, allowing others to decide if the claim does in fact have some merit.

This particular idiomatic expression is sometimes traced back to the days of Shakespeare, although the exact form of the expression does not appear in any of his major works. By the 19th century, the use of the expression in popular literature was not unusual, and continued to be a well-understood saying throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. Often used as a means of differentiating attributes, aptitudes and quality between similar persons, situations, or products, the term normally identifies one or a select group that are considered somewhat better than the other options available.

While for the most part this phrase is used in positive terms to identify something that is superior, there are also instances in which the phrase may be used to imply a negative quality about a person or situation. For example, someone who is considered a bit of an intellectual or social snob may be referred to derisively as mistakenly considering himself or herself a cut above everyone else. In like manner, a product that is advertised as being superior to all competitors without ever really stating why may be shunned by consumers as making dubious claims about being a cut above similar products.

Since being a cut above implies some sort of superiority in terms of quality, quantity, or desirability, use of the phrase often begs further explanation of exactly what characteristics justify making this sort of claim. When those characteristics are immediately obvious, such as noting that the physical appearance of an individual is clearly more attractive than others in the room, the justification may require little in the way of explanation. At other times, more detailed information may be necessary before observers will agree that a person, place, or product is in fact a cut above the rest.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including Language & Humanities, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By lighth0se33 — On Jul 27, 2012

@orangey03 - “A Cut Above Meats” is also a popular name for delis and butcher shops. I don't know how they get around copyrights, but there are many of them out there that share this name.

Any type of business that includes cutting something as its main function can make use of this name. It's a good play on words, and it does make them sound like they are of higher quality than others.

I would probably be more likely to go to a butcher shop named “A Cut Above” than to one simply named “The Meat Shop” or something else unimaginative. This would be especially true if I had never been to either shop and have no idea what to expect.

By orangey03 — On Jul 26, 2012

I used to go to “A Cut Above” hair salon as a kid. I always thought the name was so cute and catchy.

I lived in a small town, and this was the best named salon there. I don't know if they really were better than their competition, but I loved the name so much that I didn't care.

I have a feeling that there are many other hair salons out there with this name. Since every town in America seems to have several salons, there must be many who have chosen to use this catchy name in order to set themselves apart from the ones with uninteresting names. It's always good to market yourself as better than the rest.

By Kristee — On Jul 26, 2012

I have always felt that this idiom is a snobby way to say that something is better. Why can't you just say, “This place or person is the best!” without having to get snooty?

It just sounds far too proper for me. To say that anyone is above someone else just doesn't seem right. Maybe it would be more acceptable to say that someone is the best in their field than to say that they are “above” the rest, even though it means the same thing.

Something about the phrase just rubs me the wrong way. I know that I have commented that some things and people are better than others before, but I have never and will never say that they are “a cut above.”

By StarJo — On Jul 25, 2012

I have heard so many different theories as to where this phrase originated. Because there are so many out there, I don't think that anyone really knows the truth.

It is just one of those phrases that everyone accepts the meaning of without knowing why it means what it does. We don't always have to know where a phrase came from in order to understand it.

Basically, any time that you are learning words from a new language, you just accept what you are told about their meaning, anyway. Few people feel the need to dig deep to find where the words came from, and I think that just learning them is the simplest way to move forward.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
Learn more
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