A time when drastic actions are required, because all other methods have failed. The phrase is used in sports as well as in politics.
Nut-cutting time is similar to “crunch time” – it’s a moment when the stakes are high and it’s appropriate to pull out all the stops. It’s also a time when it makes sense to experiment with new approaches.
William Safire is widely credited with being the first writer to use the phrase in print. Safire’s political dictionary defines nut-cutting time as “a slang allusion to political castration: the denial of favors and the removal of power; or, painful attention to details requiring attention.”
Richard Nixon famously used the phrase in 1968 during his presidential campaign. On the eve of the election, he told his campaign staff that it was time to “get down to the nut-cutting.” William Safire wrote that Nixon had meant to say “let’s get down to brass tacks” and that his use of the phrase “nut cutting” was a slip of the tongue. That’s been interpreted to mean that Nixon was expressing a deep-seated anxiety about castration, especially since Nixon went on to talk about lamb fries, a regional delicacy which he’d been given during a campaign stop in Missouri.
There’s some disagreement over where, exactly, the phrase “nut cutting time” originated. Some people believe that the phrase can be traced back to cattle ranches. The explanation is that there were certain days when the ranchers had to decide which of the cattle would be castrated, and which would be allowed to grow up to be bulls. The castration would be performed during nut cutting time. The expression, in this context, implies a painful but still necessary duty.
An alternate explanation says that the phrase comes from an industrial context. According to that theory, someone who has tried everything possible to remove a rusted or a stripped nut might be forced to physically cut the nut off the bolt as a final, last-ditch solution. The phrase, in this context, suggests an imperfect solution to a problem which is only appropriate when everything else has been attempted.
“Nut cutting time” is also used in sports, to mean “crunch time,” or the time when the best players have to pull out all the stops and show what they’re made of. In an interview with the Washington Post, former NFL hall of famer and coach Russ Grimm explained what he values and needs during nut cutting time:
“I mean it changes every year. The league changes,” Grimm said. “But the bottom line is, bigger is always better. And I’m gonna live and die with that. The toughness factor, when it comes to nut-cutting time, you want tough guys playing for you. You can take some of these Cadillacs or whatever, he runs a 4.3, but he runs a 4.3 every fifth time he runs a route, you know what I’m saying?