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To “cut it fine” in English is to be successful at something, with the implication that failure was imminent. In other words, if someone “cuts it fine,” they just succeeded at doing something, but almost ended up failing at it. This kind of idiom establishes a way to talk about a barely successful event, something that, in terms of an idiomatic noun, might be called a “close call.” The origin of this phrase is somewhat unknown.
The use of the phrase “to cut something fine” refers to an alternative use of the word “fine,” that is more common in some traditional English-speaking societies than it is in others. The general meaning of the word “fine” refers to something positive, but there’s also an alternative meaning related to thin-ness, where “cutting something fine” means cutting it thin. Here, the idiomatic use of the word “fine” becomes apparent; if someone “cut it fine” and barely avoided an accident, they took advantage of a “thin” window of opportunity or chance of success.
This idiomatic phrase is often used to describe procrastination. For example, someone might say to someone else “you really took your time and waited till the last minute – you cut it fine.” Here they are emphasizing the idea that the person had a greater chance of success, but chose to waste it by not realizing earlier opportunities. This phrase can also be used in more physical situations, for example where someone in successfully navigating vehicle through a narrow lane “cuts it fine.”
The English language has a range of other idiomatic phrases to describe the same kind of idea. Someone might say “you just got by” or “you made it by the skin of your teeth.” The cryptic phrase “the skin of your teeth” has a similar meaning to “cut it fine” – it means that the person just barely succeeded in getting something done or achieving some goal or objective.
Another set of idioms with the same meaning focus on the verb “scrape.” This descriptive verb is useful in a lot of idioms, because it evokes such a concrete visual image. Someone could say, for example, that someone “had a close scrape” or, in the verb form, “scraped by.” Both of these have similar meanings as the above idioms.
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