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What does It Mean to "Cut a Rug"?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term to "cut a rug" first started to emerge as a slang term for dancing in the 1920s. Use of the phrase persisted well into the 1940s, although the popularity of the term has since faded. An author writing in vintage vernacular might describe her characters cutting a rug to transport the reader back to the era in which the book is supposed to be set. Among small sectors of urban communities, this slang term experienced a brief resurgence in the late 1990s.

Like most slang, the origins of "cut a rug" as a synonym for dancing are disputed. Several competing theories to explain the idea have been bandied about, but none have been firmly proved. This is often the case with slang, which sometimes seems to catch on overnight. The murky origins of such terms are both fun and frustrating to explore, especially for historians of language. Especially with expressions as graphic as this one, many long to know who first used the saying, and when.

Some theorists believe that this term might have been used to describe dancers who moved so well and so regularly that they would have worn out a carpet. In some regions, a particularly skilled dancer is said to "cut a mean rug," a nod to the notable abilities of said dancer. In addition to being charming, this explanation is highly probable. Carpets are known to show extensive wear with small slits which could resemble cuts, and the link between heavy dancing and wearing out the floors seems obvious.

Other theorists have suggested that the term is related to rugs in the sense of taking them up or moving them. When a spontaneous dance party arises, rugs and furniture are usually moved out of the way to facilitate dancing. Rugs could also be removed in the long term to create a dance space, as would have been common in the 1920s, when Prohibition caused many social clubs to go underground into private homes. While the rugs might not have been literally cut, they could have been moved to safekeeping to avoid damage from dancing.

Whatever the origins of the idea of dancing enough to cut a rug may be, the term is charmingly descriptive. The 1920s was an era in which more vigorous dances began to be popular, and the idea that young people were dancing so robustly that the carpets were in danger may have been held by more traditionalist dancers. As often happens with disparaging comments made by outsiders, this phrase may have been picked up by the exuberant dancers to describe their activities. One will note that modern and jazz dances can be said to cut a rug, while traditional minuets and waltzes are usually not associated with the expression.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon974871 — On Oct 21, 2014

This article was a pleasure to read; it was wonderfully written, concise and informative. To cut a rug... What a fantastic idiom.

By anon262956 — On Apr 22, 2012

Who would dance on a rug? Post 2, by anon41668, clearly makes the most sense.

By anon80061 — On Apr 26, 2010

Who knew that such a term could go such a long way? My husband says that I can definitely "cut a rug", which he referred to as me being able to dance well and tare a dance floor up like no other!

This came up while analyzing the lyrics of a recently published song. I had no idea what this term meant. He urged me to look up the term, so here I am, commenting! I think I will take his definition of it as it is rather flattering and most desirable over spurs on a cowboy/girl boot or a simple, literal meaning of cutting a rug to make room on a dance floor.

In his eyes, I need neither to chop a rug up. It's all in these moves baby!

Thanks for the information and to those who responded to the initial post! It was rather interesting! You never know what you're going to learn!

By anon41668 — On Aug 16, 2009

I, grew up in the cut a rug era and i remember this explanation.

In the 1910-40 era houses had a main room- a parlor, (from the french: talking room), and there was a wood floor. To prevent dust, scratches, scuffing and extra cleaning, rugs were used like a rug in front of each chair or rocker, or sofa.

When there was a big party, to prevent slipping or tripping on the rugs, and in honor of the important guests, one or 2 or 3 or all or the main big rug was removed or cut to dance on the wood floor. Usually male guests would cut or fold the rug in half and carry it away to another room or behind the sofa, or just on top of another nearby rug. Since the cutting of the rug or rugs was almost always associated with dancing it became slang for lets have a dance party now. Males would volunteer to cut the rug because they wanted to dance to show off and earn the respect and love of certain females.

Females would dance with males who took away the rugs and thus encouraged everyone to dance because sometimes there woud be long silences, lulls in the conversation due to shyness and lack of social skills. Another factor was there were frequently chaperones or elders who would watch like a hawk to spot any sexiness, or impropriety. Dancing or cutting the rug might distract the elders from a look, a touch, an accidental flirting move.

By anon20364 — On Oct 29, 2008

I heard the association of Dancing and Cutting a Rug. Comes from Square Dancing and performed by cowboys with spurs on. The repeated patterns of Square dancing and the wear of the spurs on the rug would "cut" it.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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