"Work Cut Out" - I don't get it

When I first heard the phrase “You have your work cut out for you” I thought it meant that it made the job easier, because you have removed, or cut out, the work. Made sense to me. But I eventually found out that I was wrong, that’s not what it means.

Apparently it stems from the tailoring or clothing industry, where they would literally cut out the work, with scissors, ahead of time. But, to me, that sounds like the work has been prepared already, which means, well, less work for you. Again.

But the real meaning seems to be the opposite of what I thought: Work cut out for you = the work has been planned for you, and there it is!

Except that’s not how people use it; they tend to use it more along the lines of there being a lot harder work is ahead than you anticipated. And to me, that doesn’t fit with the origin.

So what’s up? Has the meaning just distorted, and now people are just using it “incorrectly”? Or am I missing something?

I can’t find anything definitive, but I’ve always understood it to mean that the prepared task is a conspicuously large one - so something like “you’ve got your work cut out for you, [and look - there’s an awful lot of it]”

I managed to find this - which agrees on the tailoring origin and claims that cutting out is the east part of the job - so having your work cut out would mean there’s only the harder bit left to do.

I’ve understood it as meaning that your work load has just been clearly defined, and it amounts to more than you had anticipated.

I’ve always understood it as Mangetout explains. Somebody else did all the easy prep work & left you a large pile of the hard part. Now get to it.

It’s no easy part left and a pile of hard stuff to get through.

Aha. Okay, that seems to fit. Mostly.


The context of the metaphor might be more easily understood if one thinks about 19th century sweatshops – a foreman might easily cut out a lot of cloth pieces, all of which the employee doing the actual piecing and sewing would be expected to get through in one shift. Hence, looking at the large pile of work placed at someone’s worksite by the foreman, his fellow might comment, “You’ve sure got your work cut out for you!”

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