Cut for Sign.

I’m reading Charles Portis’s True Grit (having loved his Norwood), and I just came across the sentence “He is a half-breed Comanche and it is something to see, watching him cut for sign.” If you google “cut for sign” you can find any number of explanations of this evocative regional term, e.g., from Texas Monthly:

After a harrowing skirmish with the Comanche in 1860, Charles Goodnight cut for sign to track down warriors who had escaped. That practice, in which a person searches for people or animals by “cutting,” or studying a section of land for clues, may seem like a lost art of the Old West, but it is still used today. “Ranchers cut for sign to find lost dogs and cattle or to find trespassing animals that could damage their property,” says Brad Guile, who lives near El Paso and used the technique when he was stationed at Fort Bliss. By identifying subtle changes in the landscape, a person can determine where an animal is headed and how old its tracks are.

But what I want to know is, what is this use of “cut”? The closest sense in the ancient OED entry (not fully updated since 1893) is 16.b. “To come across, strike, hit upon (a path, etc.). esp. U.S. with trail. Also elliptical“:

1892 Field 23 Jan. 119/1 At length we cut our spoor again, and hunted it along carefully and slowly.
1899 T. W. Hall Tales 19 One of his men dashes breathlessly in..with the exciting report that he has cut the raiders’ trail.
1903 A. Adams Log of Cowboy vii. 90 If you have no authority to cut this trail then you don’t cut this herd.
1903 A. Adams Log of Cowboy vii. 90 They were merely cutting (trail cutting) in the interest of the immediate locality.

But this is an extension of the sense “To cross (a line): expressing motion,” where the meaning is clear; I don’t see how you get from that to “cut” = “study a section of land.” All thoughts, anecdotes, and sidetracks welcome.


  1. Martin Langeveld says

    Another, perhaps related sense of “cut” from the American West is the cutting horse, which was trained to cut, or isolate, individual cattle from a herd. Both this and the trail-cutting sense are included in the third example in your post. Per the Wikipedia page about cutting horses: “A cutting horse is said to possess an innate ability to anticipate or read a cow’s intended moves; an ability commonly referred to as having cow sense or cow smarts.” So the cutting horse reads the cow the way the cowboy reads the trail (or landscape) for clues.

    “Cutting a trail” of course is also is related the idea of hacking a trail through a wilderness, whether woods or prairie, something pretty basic to both white settlers and their Native American predecessors on the land. So the progression would be from actually cutting (hacking, chopping) a trail, to finding and following one by reading clues, to having a horse learn to similarly “read” cattle in order to peel them from the herd.

  2. When you cut for sign, you are covering the land by criss-crossing and this further dividing the parcel of land into smaller sections. So I think “cut” has this meaning.

  3. Hmm. Both of you are plausible, but I’m not sure if your explanations are compatible with each other.

  4. Didn’t you ever cut across your neighbour’s lawn on the way to school? I understand this as meaning making several exploratory lanes across a piece of land, to see what intersects. Something like an exploratory trench in archaeology, but above-ground.

  5. That’s plausible too!

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    the OED sense of “cut trail” seems to suggest locating a pre-existing trail (which is quite similar to the cut-for-sign sense), as opposed to “break[ing] trail” where the person is essentially creating the trail as they go by pushing aside branches, trampling down brush (or snow in the wintertime),* getting rid of low-hanging branches, and otherwise making it easier for whoever is following behind them to follow the trail they are creating than to do the same sort of trail-creating work themselves. I could see “cutting trail” as a plausible synonym for “breaking trail,” but that wouldn’t match the OED sense and wouldn’t be particularly helpful here.

    *King Wenceslaus has more or less been breaking trail when tells his page:

    “Mark my footsteps, good my page;
    Tread thou in them boldly;
    Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
    Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

  7. That might explain the name of Cut and Shoot, pop. 1070, which WP grandly calls a city in Texas. They say a boy, witnessing a skirmish, called, “I’m going to cut around the corner and shoot through the bushes in a minute!” That sounds very much like a made-up story. Cut in the sense of following an animal, followed by shooting it, is a likelier combination than this cobbled-together story. It still doesn’t explain how the combination became the name of the town, but there it is.

    The story of the boy is apparently favored by the Texas Historical Society. Does that mean that the sense of “cut” as ‘follow’ is obsolete?

    P.S,. I finally now know what spoor is. I always thought of it as a side-trail or something. I must have confused it with spur.

  8. Hamid Ouyachi says

    Just as a cutting horse “cuts right, cuts left”, to “cut for sign” means to crisscross, zigzag through a landscape looking for tracks, as @T.W. said

  9. Jen in Edinburgh says

    ‘Quarter’ in the sense of searching (rather than physically dividing) would seem to be similar, even if not actually related.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    I had unthinkingly assumed that if there even was a book that the movie True Grit was based on, it would be a stock representative of a literary genre in which I have no interest whatsoever. The buzz around the Coen brothers’ version was the first intimation to me that this was far from the case. I’m currently halfway through Masters of Atlantis and can already see exactly why the Coen brothers would have been interested in doing a Portis movie adaptation properly.* The book superbly pulls off the high strangeness thing which only the real experts (like the Coens themselves) can make work.

    I have reason to believe that Portis’ True Grit will be in my Christmas stocking.

    *Remaking a John Wayne movie without John Wayne, yet still doing it better than the original. Possibly a sign of the End Times.

  11. I should say rather, of the Start Times.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    An entirely orthodox observation. Imprimatur.

  13. I have reason to believe that Portis’ True Grit will be in my Christmas stocking.

    Excellent! I guarantee enjoyment.

  14. An entirely orthodox observation. Imprimatur.

    Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt — vigilemus!
    Ecce feliciter imminet arbiter ille supremus.
    Imminet, imminet, ut mala terminet, æqua coronet,
    Recta remuneret, anxia liberet, æthera donet.

    (I don’t care for minaciter in the original, so I replaced it with feliciter. Bernard of Cluny was a bitter, bitter man, whereas I am very far from contemptus mundi, especially just now.)

  15. Lars Mathiesen says

    Same idea as cruisers, then. How soon we forget. And those are cutters in the Coast Guard, ah ha! per the comment preceding that. (A kutter in Danish is a small trawler, for some reason).

  16. John Emerson says

    The American composer Horatio Parker composed an oratorio based on “Hors Novissims”. It’s more or less forgotten today, but my parents had it on a record and I became quite fond of it when I was young.

  17. John Emerson says

    There is a trade called “timber cruiser” — someone who goes into a forest and estimates the amount of good timber it will produce. Probably a similar idea to Lars’s cruiser above.

  18. KWillets in that thread:

    Google n-grams shows “timber cruiser” first appearing in volume at the beginning of the 20th century when North American forests were being clearcut. It’s apparently a highly technical job marking out plots and measuring tree heights and diameters, and applying various sampling and extrapolation techniques. My guess is that “cruising” may refer to blazing boundary lines or making cross-sectional surveys along lines.

  19. David Marjanović says


    Cognate with German Spur “footprint, track, trace”, including lanes for parallel driving on a street and “may contain traces of”.

    …but the actual “spoor” as a hunters’ technical term is Losung, otherwise used as a literary word for “password” or “motto”.

  20. S. Valkemirer says

    Putting Bernard de Cluny’s verse (as slightly modified by John Cowan) into Google Translate, one gets this:

    At last, we wound up – wake up!
    Behold, happy is the supreme arbiter of threatens.
    , Is imminent, above the cave, so that evils may terminate, as much as crowns,
    Rewarded in line, anxious to liberate the skies self.

    Not a good translation by any account.

  21. Bletcherous indeed. To be fair, GT’s Latin was trained on technical works from the Renaissance onward, not on poetry, mediaeval or otherwise. That said, it looks as if GT half-recognized the passage, or where does threatens come from, since minaciter ‘in a threatening manner’ is not in the text any more?

  22. GT’s Latin training corpus certainly did include the Aeneid.

  23. I’m just a reformed language arts teacher, but I remain amazed at the illustrations of uses of words in dictionaries. I grew up in central Texas (yes, I’ve been through Cut and Shoot a time or 2, and it’s a city–even with its tiny population–because it’s incorporated as a city), where I always understood “cut a trail” in the sense of “making a usable trail” (whether by widening an existing path or breaking through the undergrowth).

    I agree with J.W. Brewer that that doesn’t match the OED definition, but it’s just 1 of a bunch of cases where the “illustration” doesn’t much “illustrate” for me. I often think of my days teaching high school English when I’d ask students to use the vocabulary words in sentences that showed that they knew the meaning of the word, but I often got MadLibs back; in the 1899 example from the OED, I could stuff any of a number of verbs in the place of “cut” and still have as much clarity, so that does nothing to help me understand the word.

  24. my field-bred cocker spaniel would vigorously quarter across a patch of land, to locate the trail of pheasants. He’d be moving very fast and I could tell when he had cut a trail by the yip and sudden leap to reposition himself along the trail..
    So that’s what I visualize for the half-breed Comanche working his patch of land..

    Cutting trail for me has this sense, locating an existing trail whether visible or otherwise sensible. Making a new trail is more breaking trail, if in snow, or bushwhacking. On the old hiking maps of the Drakensberg mountains the faint trails were marked as ‘soek die pad’, Afrikaans for search for the trail. Numbers of times we failed to cut trail and found ourselves at a precipice in the last light, with dark and cold descending..

  25. This quotation from an LA Times article about search and rescue tracker Hannah Nyala may help:

    “One day, a 9-year-old girl went to the restroom at Cottonwood Campground and didn’t return to her parents’ campsite. Repeatedly “cutting for sign”–drawing a circle, then walking the perimeter to spot any tracks leaving it–Nyala and two other trackers followed her trail. Six hours later, success. ”

    Basically, you’re starting from a last known point – here, the last place the missing person was seen. You know they left that point but you don’t know which direction they left in, and the tracks at the starting point are confusing because they may have spent some time walking back and forth before leaving – and in this example, there would be a lot of other footprints in the immediate area round the restroom. So you move a little way away and walk round the point in a big circle looking for signs. You’re not following *along* the trail because you haven’t found it yet; you’re hoping to find it by following a circular path that must, sooner or later, cut *across* the trail you want.

  26. That’s really cool. Thanks for picking this up.

  27. “bushwacking” to me isn’t about trails – it’s about traveling (through woods or scrub) where there is no established trail, without necessarily having a person in the lead establishing a route (“breaking trail”), or looking for an animal trail to follow.

  28. @ David Eddyshaw, belatedly

    Gnomons everywhere know Charles Portis as a cultural treasure; he reminds me somehow of both Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard. My grandmother had tales of the Younger brothers sojourning late in their lives with her parents but she is no longer with us and the details are lost. As a topologist I fondly remember her once saying that she would love to get outside of a hamburger.

  29. Stu Clayton says

    That would be the disjoint union of S1xS1x[0,1] and D3, but with the nutrition topology.

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    The best topology.

  31. jack morava says


    ( : + { ) }

  32. Since we are talking about topology again, but this time with a professional topologist in attendance, I want to ask a question about the terminology for certain kinds of generated topologies.

    By way of background,* when you have a class of functions fₐ: XₐYₐ, and either the Xₐ or Yₐ already have topologies, there are natural topologies on the other sets that are induced by the functions. For the collection of functions fₐ: XYₐ, where each Yₐ has a known topology, the initial topology on X is the coarsest topology for which al the fₐ are continuous. [This can be made more explicit by taking the inverse images fₐ⁻¹(U) of all open sets U in Y as a sub-basis for the topology.] One simple important example is the subspace topology, where the single function f: XY is the inclusion map on the subset X of the topological space Y. A less trivial example is the product topology, where the fₐ: Πₐ XₐXₐ are the projection maps.

    The (less commonly seen) dual notion of the final topology occurs when the domains (rather than the ranges) already have a known topology. Given the fₐ: XₐY, the final topology on Y is the finest for which all the functions are continuous.

    I want to know what to call something that is similar to the initial topology, but a little more complicated, since the set being topologized is not the domain of the functions, but just a part in the domain. For example, consider the space C(A,B) of continuous functions f: AB. This has a natural topology induced by the evaluation map e: C(A,B) × AB, defined by e(f,x) = f(x). What should this topology be called? I don’t mean this specific example, which is the compact-open topology.** I mean, what should be the general term for this generalization of the initial topology, for which the space X being topologized is not just the domain, but rather the domain is constructed by some topological means out of X and other spaces with already-known topologies.

    * This background should be useful for people who have studied topology but forgotten some of it. For somebody who either remembers all their topology or never studied the subject in the first place, I assume it will be no good for anything.

    ** For metric spaces, the compact-open topology can be extended to all functions, not just continuous ones, as the topology of compact convergence. This is a natural analogue of the simplest topology on the function space, the topology of pointwise convergence, which is the same as the product topology.

  33. jack morava says

    One of the things I love about this blog is the breadth of knowledge and interests of its participants, but I’m afraid something I posted on an earlier topic started from an unclosed parenthesis and went to some extent off into the weeds. Function space topologies are a pretty technical subject, and if I had a useful short answer I’d give it a shot, but honestly I don’t. You’d probably get a better answer at for example

    (which is a very nice community). Apologies, sincerely \dots

  34. @jack morava: I do post occasionally on MathOverflow (and much more frequently on other StackExchange sites). I guess this just seemed like too elementary a question for that site. I find the speed with which some extremely technical questions receive detailed answers rather daunting, and I’m more at home at the physics site. Maybe I’ll give my question a try though.

  35. jack morava says

    @ Brett, maybe email me at jackatm athdot jhudo tedu and I’ll try to be more helpful? mite be slow because seasonal cheer tho.

  36. January First-of-May says

    I guess this just seemed like too elementary a question for that site.

    I don’t think there’s such a thing as too elementary a question for a StackExchange site. (…At least, as long as it’s not something blatantly trivial on the level of “what’s 14 times 17”.)
    And to me, at least, this particular question does not look elementary (and I thought I was actually half-decent at math).

    That said, if you feel daunted by MathOverflow proper, have you tried

  37. @January First-of-May: Well I already posted it on MathOverflow. (And it occurs to me now that there may well not be a unique coarsest topology for an arbitrary domain constructed out of X, although for products involving X I think it ought to be fine.)

    I also have no desire to join the lower level Math StackExchange site. I look at questions there occasionally, but they pretty much all seem to be low-level dross. MathOverflow questions are typically much more interesting, and I am, in principle, a research-level mathematician.

Speak Your Mind