Stock phrases are often really interesting from a linguistic point of view.
In some ways, you can think of them as tide pools.
When the overall ocean of old language rolls away, we’re left with small places where old, uncommon words remain in usage despite being otherwise forgotten.
You might be asking yourself, “What’s with the ocean metaphors?”
The answer is that today we’re going to look at the phrase “I like the cut of your jib.”
What is the meaning of “I like the cut of your jib”?
A jib is a triangular sail near the front of a sailing ship. In the 1600s, the style (or “cut”) of the jib sail could be used to tell viewers a lot about a ship, such as where it was from or what its purpose was. Today, this phrase has come to mean something like “I like how you look” or, more figuratively, “I like how you think.”
What is a jib?
The word “jib” refers to a specific type of sail on a sailing vessel.
We’re going to get a bit into the weeds here, but stick with me and you’ll have a full understanding of what “I like the cut of your jib” means, I promise!
Unlike modern ships, which might be powered by steam or electricity, sailing ships needed to get around using wind power.
A single sail wasn’t really enough to do this, because you wouldn’t get much wind in a single sail and it was hard to keep a boat stable with only one sail flapping around all over the place.
Enter the jib! The jib sail is a sail that is set towards the front of a ship, in front of its foremast (the mast closest to the front of the boat).
Jib sails aren’t there to increase a ship’s speed, but rather to reduce the turbulence encountered by the larger main sails.
Large ships have many sails, and typically have more than one jib sail as well. Sometimes as many as six. That’s a lot of jibs!
It’s important not to mix the word “jib” in the saying “cut of your jib” up with the similar looking word “gib.”
A jib is a sail. a gib, on the other hand, is a bolt used to hold part of a machine in place. I think we can all agree that bolts are harder to cut than sails.
What does the cut of a jib refer to?
Now that you know far more than you ever wanted to about sails, what’s the deal with the word “cut” in this saying? The answer may surprise you.
The “cut of a jib” doesn’t mean someone has attacked an enemy ship and slashed their sails. Instead, it refers to the way the jib sail was shaped (that is, “cut”) before being attached to the mast. The “cut” of the jib could also refer to how the jib sails were placed on the mast.
The reason this was important is because you could use the design of a jib sail to identify a ship’s allegiance from a distance, something that could give you a vital edge in naval combat.
In short, then the original meaning of “the cut of their jib” was used to refer exclusively to sailing ships.
Specifically, this phrase originally meant using the arrangement of a certain type of sail on a ship to determine if it was an enemy vessel or friendly.
The meaning of “cut of your jib”
When someone mentions “the cut of your jib,” they aren’t about to start firing cannons at your boat.
Instead, “I like the cut of your jib” just means they like some aspect of what you are doing. The jib sail is a type of metaphor here, being used to talk about the appearance of something else: you.
In fact, while this saying originally referred to just looks (like the appearance of the actual sail on the ship), today it is used more broadly and can refer to things other than physical appearance.
For example, someone might use this phrase to say they appear of a choice you’ve made or an action you’ve taken. Of course, it can also still be used to mean that someone likes how you look.
In short, “I like the cut of your jib” is a compliment that means something similar to “I like how you handle yourself.”
The phrase “cut of their jib” has been around for at least two hundred years, and has appeared in many books and movies since.
One of the first recorded uses of a similar phrase is from an early 1800s magazine about British nautical exploits called Naval Chronicle. In the 1805 edition, a captain named Richard Walpole describes sailing from Mumbai (then Bombay) and around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa.
There, Walpole describes a harrowing chase between his vessel and two mystery ships which they considered suspicious because they “perceived by the cut of their sails… that they were French Ships of War.”
Although Walpole doesn’t use the word “jib,” his use of the phrase clearly shows that sailors were used to using the shape and arrangement of a ship’s sails (including the jib sail) to identify ships.
It also suggests why the phrase “cut of your jib” is used to refer not just to looks, but to actions and attitudes. The cut of a ship’s jib didn’t just make a strange boat look nice; it could mean you were about to be fired upon.
The British public in the 1800s loved novels about the sea, so it’s no surprise that this phrase popped up in plenty of books around that time.
Sir Walter Scott’s St Ronan’s Well (1823) has the a character whose caution about travelers can be put down to her dislike of “what the sailor calls the cut of their jib.”
Volume 3 of a serial magazine called The Romancist works in even more ship metaphors to describe a character who is dressed so nicely he is almost unrecognizable:
“If it were not for the build of your hull, and the cut of your jib, an old shipmate would not be able to make you out at a fair offing.”
This example is interesting because “the cut of your jib” is being used to refer solely to the character’s facial features, and not exactly as a compliment.
William Holloway’s 1839 General Dictionary of Provincialisms also ties the phrase solely to “outward appearance” and explains the origin of the metaphor in the “peculiar cut or shape” of a ship’s sails.
Later dictionaries, while they still tie the “cut of their jib” to a person’s appearance, also include explanations like this one in an 1889 dictionary from Ebenezer Brewer, which notes that “the cut of a jib or foresail of a ship indicates her character.”
From there, it’s easy to understand how this phrase took on its current meaning of not just someone’s physical appearance but also the way they might act, think or approach life in general.
How to use “I like the cut of your jib”
“I like the cut of your jib” is a complete sentence, and can be used on its own to tell someone you appreciate their attitude or to pay them a compliment about their appearance.
This phrase sounds very old-fashioned, so you might want to be cautious about adding it to your everyday vocabulary unless you have a reputation for oddness. That said, it’s a perfectly good saying and not offensive, so you don’t need to worry about it if someone’s said this to you.
Here, the CEO is probably not commenting on the speaker’s appearance, but his ability to finish his work.
In this case, it’s hard to say whether the grandfather was complimenting the woman’s appearance or her habit of being neat in general. Either makes sense, though.
Finally, here’s an example that clearly refers to physical appearance.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.