One of the most famous court cases in Australian history con cerned the death of a baby which the mother said had been killed by a dingo. The government claimed that the mother had murdered her own daughter, despite the fact that they had no body, no motive, and no weapon.

Part of the evidence shown in the courtroom was some of the infant’s clothing. The argument was based partly on whether one item of clothing had been cut, as by a weapon, or whether it had been torn, as by an animal such as a dingo. Experts who examined the threads appeared in court and gave evidence. If the cloth had been cut, the experts maintained, an instrument, such as a knife or scissors, would have been used. The threads would be severed, but their ends would still be in their proper positions. On the other hand, a tear would mean that the ends should be pulled out of their alignment.

Often important decisions can hang on the understanding and definition of words. In English we can say “Cut it out,” meaning “Stop doing that”. However, a surgeon speaking to his assistant will have the same sentence interpreted quite differently. He wants his assistant to remove a piece of a body, not stop work ing.

Sometimes when we go for a walk we may look for a short–cut, an alternative, usually less developed path that leaves the main road and cuts across to join the road again at some other point. It saves us time, cutting perhaps minutes off from our trip. However, if we told a butcher that we wanted a short–cut he would not think we meant something like a short path!

Women who go shopping for meat will in fact look for a good cut. There is a lot in the way a butcher slices the meat and no effi cient shopper would ask the clerk for a tear of meat.

A further use of cut is in American university classes where one can cut a class, that is to decide not to attend the class. The absence is not excused and it cuts out the class for the day.

We sometimes may hear that a person is a cut above the rest of the people. Compared to other students or workers, the one singled out is better. We can even say that she is cut out of the “right stuff”.

Cut can be used in a negative way as well: someone who belittles a person can be said to be cutting in their manner, so they cut the other person with their words or actions.

The word tear refers to an action which is more painful or difficult. When one lover leaves another their hearts are torn out. (Tear is one of a group of verbs in the English language which does not add the suffix –ed to form the past tense, but changes the vowel instead.) A heart torn can be compared to a wound, where the flesh is torn open. What tears the heart is the lover’s absence, not some nail or object.

Usually when we think of a tear, we imagine some damage to a piece of cloth but, as we have shown, it may apply to the body as well. The picture of cloth being torn apart can be extended to groups of people: we can say “The group was torn apart by the argument,” or “The family was torn in different directions by the decision.” There is always abrupt damage. We can tear open a parcel, but we do it with excitement and speed.

A word closely related to tear is rip. The difference is usually in the single quick motion, or a series of motions, which is involved in a rip. A parachute has a rip–cord, not a tear–cord. We want the chute to open quickly and rip loose from its pack, but we do not want it to tear.

You may have heard of a rip–off. This is when someone makes a glowing promise that entices you to spend money on a “sure bet”. Unfortunately, the good thing doesn’t happen and the person disappears with your money. You have been ripped–off.

In the Old Testament we read how the prophets tore their clothes as a sign of their deep distress. They were so upset by the evil of the day that they wanted others to see how upset and sorry they were. In the New Testament Paul was so pleased over the feelings of the Galations toward him that he said they would have torn out their own eyes and given them to him.

The word cut was used dramatically by King Solomon when two women both claimed that the other’s baby had died, but not her own. One had rolled on hers in the night and killed it, but she had swapped it for the other baby. The result was a court case before the King. He told his men to cut the living baby in half so that each woman could have part. Of course the real mother objected and King Solomon wisely concluded that the other woman had lied.

There is another use of cut in the Bible that should help Christians understand how seriously we should live. Jesus said that branches of trees which claim to be Christians but do not have any fruit on them should be cut off and burned.

We have seen that cut and its cousins, rip and tear, can be used to show how people or objects can be divided, separated, and subsequently receive damage and pain. We can cut people off, rip them off, tear ourselves away from them. We can decide whether to hurt people or to help them and the words we use will often show just how we feel about them.

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