It is a circumstance rather remarkable, that the answer to Sir George Rodney’s summons of surrender, given by the respective Dutch Governours of the Islands of St. Eustatius and St. Martin’s, should be couched exactly in the same form of words without the smallest variation; from this we are either to suppose, that the Governours had anticipated, and consulted upon, the designs of the gallant British Admiral, or, that Sir George Rodney, to save unnecessary trouble, sent them his own requisition, and their answer ready cut and dried!
from The Leeds Intelligencer (Yorkshire) – 27th March 1781
The phrase cut and dried means completely decided, fixed beforehand.
The theory that fits both the chronology and the circumstances of the usage is that the phrase originated in herbalists’ language: cut and dried herbs were those that were ready for use, as contrasted with those that were still growing.
The earliest figurative meaning of cut and dried, also cut and dry, was, of ideas, language, etc., ready-made and void of spontaneity or originality.
The earliest known instance is from A Letter to Dr. Henry Sacheverell¹, in which are some Remarks on His Vindication; with an Account of some Passages of his Life, not mention’d in the Modern Fanatick. By a Gentleman of Oxford (signed J.B. – London, 1710):
Your Sermon was ready Cut and Dry’d.
(¹ Henry Sacheverell (1674-1724), Anglican cleric)
The Irish satirist, poet and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) used the phrase, in the form cut and dry, on several occasions. For example, in The Furniture of a Woman’s Mind (1727) (all the following quotations from Swift are from Poetical Works, Dublin, 1737):
A Set of Phrases learn’t by Rote;
A Passion for a Scarlet-Coat;
When at a Play to laugh, or cry,
Yet cannot tell the Reason why:
Never to hold her Tongue a Minute;
While all she prates has nothing in it.
Whole Hours can with a Coxcomb sit,
And take his Nonsense all for Wit;
Her Learning mounts to read a Song;
But, half the Words pronouncing wrong;
Has ev’ry Rapartee [sic] in Store,
She spoke ten Thousand Times before.
Can ready Compliments supply
On all Occasions, cut and dry.
Swift also used the phrase in To Betty the Grizette² (1730):
Queen of Wit and Beauty, Betty,
And, thy Beauty thus dispatch’t;
Let me praise thy Wit unmatch’t.
Sets of Phrases, cut and dry,
Evermore thy Tongue supply.
And, thy Memory is loaded
With old Scraps from Plays exploded.
Stock’t with Repartees and Jokes,
Suited to all Christian Folks:
Shreds of Wit, and senseless Rhimes,
Blunder’d out a thousand Times.
(² grisette: a young woman of the working class, especially one employed as a shop assistant or a seamstress; literal meaning: an inferior grey dress fabric, formerly the common garb of working girls in France)
In Strephon and Chloe (1731), Swift used the phrase in the sense ready-shaped according to a priori notions:
To see some radiant Nymph appear
In all her glitt’ring Birth-day Gear,
You think some Goddess from the Sky
Descended, ready cut and dry.
The earliest instance of the phrase in its current sense that I have found is from The History of His Own Time. Compiled from the original Manuscripts of His late Excellency Matthew Prior Esq (London, 1740), by the English poet and diplomat Matthew Prior (1664-1721):
Not one third Part of the Committee themselves did know upon what Point the Accusations either against the Earl of Oxford, or any Man else, were to be grounded; several of them having since told me themselves, that they never either drew up or read the Report; but that those Things came to them, as they merrily expressed it, ready cut and dried.