C(a)u(gh)t short

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David Craig was puzzled by this AP News headline:

The background is explained in the Wikipedia article:

On May 14, 2010, NBC canceled the show, opting instead to pick-up Law & Order: Los Angeles for a first season, and renewed Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for a twelfth. The cancellation was announced after last-minute talks between NBC and Dick Wolf to extend the series failed to lead to an agreement.

David felt — and I agree — that the headline writer probably meant (what most English speakers would express as) "cut short" rather than "caught short", and either mis-learned the idiom, or else committed a word-substitution error under time pressure.  But maybe, David wrote, the English language has changed and he missed the memo.

The common idiom to be caught short [of X], usually used in the passive form, means something like "to find oneself unexpectedly with an inadequate supply of X". A few recent examples from the news:

No commercial firm wants to be caught short of supplies should China come knocking with a larger order.
I have to say city were the last team I thought would have been caught short of players this season
He delivered a corner to the far post where the Thais were caught short of defenders and Mphela was on hand to bundle the ball over the line.
Mega-rich Tony Blair was caught short of cash when he could not pay a train fare.
Today, most people are now resorting to this kind of loan in order to get some financial relief when they are caught short of cash.
With last fall's flu season approaching, the U.S. was caught short of vaccine when the British manufacturer was shut down
When the Financial Panic of 1893 caught him short of cash, ironically he himself was forced into bankruptcy,

The idiom can be used with the of-complement left implicit, as in this quatrain from a poem by Sean O'Brien, Never Can Say Goodbye (with apologies to Gloria Gaynor) :

49 Because you write but never read,
50 Because you never listen,
51 Because you are the porcelain
52 The caught-short Muses piss in?

But "caught short "also has uses with a more literal meaning, often in sports contexts. For some reason, this is especially common in writing about cricket, in the specific collocation "caught short of the crease""

Johan van der Wath is caught short of the crease by Dinesh Karthik.
The Australian was caught short of the crease by Ambati Rayudu's direct throw as he responded to a non-existent single call from Fazal.

But we can find similar expressions in baseball, football, etc.:

…he chased down that pass interceptor for 90 yards, wouldn't quit and caught him short of the goal
…but a strong throw by Cardinals Jim Dwyer caught him short of the plate.

So might the headline writer have meant "caught short" in some more literal sense, since the show was "overtaken by network executives before engaging in the traditional interactions between writers and fans that are expected during a long-running and popular show's final season?"

Maybe, as is sometimes the case in apparent word-substitution errors, the writer's intent was a sort of superposition of the caught/cut connection and the literal sense of being overtaken by opponents before reaching some goal.


  1. Michael W said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 1:09 am

    I was surprised to find another example of "caught short" (from Harper Collins, according to freedictionary.com). I've never seen this one; perhaps it's British?

    caught or taken short having a sudden need to urinate or defecate

    I wonder how often "caught short by" ever comes close to "brought short by". Quick look at Google suggests most 'caught short by' is in the insufficiency or sports context. I don't think that was the case here, though, since 'cut short' would fit the best.

  2. Miriam said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 1:11 am

    Perhaps the author has an accent in which caught and cut sound alike? (And/or had only heard one or both of the idioms spoken by someone with the same accent.)

  3. Sam said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 1:23 am

    I, on the other hand, am ONLY aware of the idiomatic meaning quoted by Michael W above, and agree that it feels British to me. I think I most likely encountered it reading British children's fiction, and I would guess that this use stems from the sports metaphor.

    The straightforward meaning — Tony Blair caught short of cash, etc — seems odd to me because my chief referent is the scatological meaning.

  4. pjharvey said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 2:22 am

    The Sean O'Brien reference to being 'caught-short' surely means badly needing to pee, particularly with reference to porcelain and piss.

    The on-line Oxford dictionary has that meaning of caught short as being an informal British usage.

    [(myl) Having now learned that idiom, I agree. (Originally I thought that O'Brien's "caught-short" was something like "caught short of access to alternative facilities".

    Other meanings of "caught short" do occur without the of-phrase, e.g.

    Don't risk getting caught short and winding up in huge debt, book your travel insurance.
    This booklet is a humorous rendering of being caught short and losing everything on Wall Street, except your sense of humor.


  5. Paul D. said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 2:31 am

    Sorry, "caught short" makes no sense here.

  6. JKD said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 4:39 am

    I would have thought it was a reference — I can't tell if this is addressed in the article — to the fact that the show was canceled just before it had a chance to beat Gunsmoke's record for the longest running TV drama.

  7. Greg said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 5:16 am

    I'm British, and for me, caught short is idiomatic for needing to go to the toilet when there are no facilities around. All of the expressions given with the of-phrase appear to reference that idiom — you can be metaphorically caught-short whenever you need to do something and don't have the facilities available to do so. All the examples given with of-phrases don't appear to be idiomatic to me; surely a non-native speaker could deduce their meaning with a little effort and patience? Or have I misunderstood idiom?


  8. Greg said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 5:17 am

    Drat, there's much to be said for proof-reading carefully before submitting. That should be "All of the expressions given without the of-phrase…". Sorry!


  9. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 6:18 am

    "All the examples given with of-phrases don't appear to be idiomatic to me"

    I'd agree, with the exception of the sporting usages, which are being used in a different way.

  10. Jo said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 7:05 am

    I'm from the US, Mid-Atlantic, and the first thing I thought upon reading the headline was "what, it needs to pee?"

    So no, not exclusively British.

  11. Dave said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 7:38 am

    To me caught short (of time being implied) works in its conventional meaning although the more literal sports meaning works well also if you think of something like the record for longest drama.

    Did the author want to emphasize the surprise nature of the cancellation (caught short) or the cancellation itself (cut short)?

  12. Trimegistus said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 7:57 am

    At times it seems newspapers pick the least literate person on the staff to write headlines.

  13. Brett said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 8:51 am

    Ginger Yellow mentioned that the sporting examples do not appear to be the same. I agree. To me, those do not sound like they have anything to do with the idiom "caught short" (with any of the meanings discussed). They simply describe a player being "caught" at a place described as "short" of some location. This use of "short" is extremely common in sports,signifying that a player or ball did not reach a location necessary to score or achieve some other advantage. "Caught" is similarly common, and the sports uses seem to correspond simply to a combination of these two usages. (I say "seem" because I am not entirely qualified to judge the cricket references; however, if "caught short of the crease" has become a fixed phrase in descriptions of the sport, it still appears to be entirely compositional.)

  14. Nijma said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 9:33 am

    Originally the headline made no sense to me–and aren't the headlines written by a separate person who is more concerned with space than meaning?–but on rereading the first few sentences, the writer seems to be bemoaning the fact that the series was canceled so abruptly it was left without (caught short without) a proper finale.

  15. Robert Coren said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    Michael W mentions "brought short (by)", but it's my impression that I've only heard or read "brought up short".

  16. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    My reading of the headline is similar to Nijma's. "Cut short" in this context would have implied something like a midseason cancellation, not a failure to renew for another season.

    Regarding Mark's quote, This booklet is a humorous rendering of being caught short and losing everything on Wall Street, could this have something to do with "going short"?

  17. John Lawler said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 11:04 am

    Judging from the evidence displayed here, it appears that for some speakers, the Passive idiom 'to be caught short of X' ("to find oneself unexpectedly with an inadequate supply of X") feels like the source of the British urinary distress sense (which they may in fact have just learned about [I happened to be familiar with it, though I'm American, and I feel this way]), while for other [hypothesis: only British?] speakers the urinary distress sense is sufficiently basic to feel like the source of the Passive idiom. And for yet others there may be no relation at all.
    Derivations can swing both ways. Very interesting, and exactly what I would have predicted. Is it only British speakers that feel like Greg, or a is common Commonwealth sense?

  18. Rob said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 11:22 am

    Doesn't anyone here remember the scene in Cool Hand Luke, when Luke (Paul Newman) says to the chain gang supervisor "Caught short here, Boss" in order to be allowed to go relieve himself (but actually escape)? That's where I learned the idiom though it was not part of my dialect growing up.

  19. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    Yet another Brit here for whom the primary meaning is the urological one; so much so as to make it quite hard to use the term in any other sense without a snigger.

  20. ED said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

    Though I can't say I hear or use this idiom with any frequency (I still understand it), having the of-phrase sounds weird to me; if it must have something, it sounds better with a clause, like: "We tried to get in the club but we got caught short (because we didn't have any money)."

    And it would never in a million years occur to me (outside of specific contexts, I suppose) that this is also a euphemism for going to the bathroom.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

    This American learned the lack-of-bathroom meaning from Lord of the Flies and still thinks of it as non-American. (I've never seen Cool Hand Luke.)

  22. Christian DiCanio said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 7:58 pm

    A general backing of /ɐ/, in words like /kɐt/ 'cut' occurs in the Northern Cities vowel shift. The result is that this word sounds more like "caught" /kɔt/. Growing up in an area where this dialect was spoken (Buffalo), and subsequently having moved away, I now find myself hearing 'cut' as 'caught.' I think that this has also affected the Canadian-raised vowels, where one hears the traditional [rəɪt] 'right' as something like [rɔɪt].

    It is perhaps this shift which has caused some confusion over which phonemic vowel is intended when speakers produce something like [kɔt]. If people know both expressions exist ("caught short" and "cut short") but don't actually know or think about what they mean, they could easily get the two confused.

  23. Jeff said,

    May 19, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

    I had the same thought as Coby. It was a full 20-season run for the show, so the 20-season run was not cut short.

  24. How to think about others’ mistakes (with a linguistic example) - 22 Words said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 1:15 am

    […] discussing an apparent error in this headline, Language Log provides a good example of not doing […]

  25. Vireya said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 5:02 am

    I'm Australian, and to me "caught short" means the same as it would to a Briton.

  26. Rachael said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 8:28 am

    I'm British, and to me "caught short" has the toilet-related meaning, but also extends to similar meanings along the lines of "suddenly have to do X without having access to the usual facilities for doing X". For example, in my ante-natal class, the midwife said "If you get caught short, don't do anything to the baby or the cord, and wait for a midwife to get to you" – presumably meaning something like "if you find yourself unexpectedly delivering in a car park or something".

  27. Chargone said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 8:32 am

    In New Zealand, so far as i've noticed, to be 'caught short' usually just means lacking the facilities/equipment needed for the task at hand. this can be in the British sense, but most people (depending on other social factors too, i guess) who i interact with would stop for a second to think 'wait, what was the context?' before coming to that conclusion if it were not specifically stated.

    and yeah, 'caught short of' is different. degree of literalness is variable, but it always means some sense of 'impeded before achieving the desired outcome'.

    'brought up short' (and variations) means 'to come to a sudden halt' and 'brought up short of x' means to be physically stopped just before reaching whatever x is. though i admit to loosing confidence in the accuracy of this paragraph as i wrote it <_<

  28. Jon said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

    I'm from the US, Baltimore, and have never heard it used in relation to urinating.

    I noticed nobody has discussed the relationship with stop short.

    Also, I think sometimes we might be misreading a usage where we think "caught short" is being used idiomatically, or as a phrase in and of itself. Considering the varied meanings of "short" like: not quite there, without enough cash, etc., isn't it possible that many of these usages (disregarding the headline, which doesn't make any sense to me) are to be taken literally? I.e. the football (US) player is literally "caught", "short of the endzone", since he's actually physically caught, and not "caught short" at all?

  29. rpsms said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

    Upstae NY & then phila, and I've never heard it used in "the british sense."

    The article itself seems to argue against "cut short" as an option: it says there were no loose ends nor anything unresolved.

  30. Fetcher said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

    Maybe the author was being clever and mixing metaphors. You know…Law and Order is about CATCHing bad guys and putting them away. So it was caught. Yeah…maybe not.

  31. Maureen said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

    Google Books shows financial uses from the early early 1900's. Sometimes it's just "caught short". Sometimes it's qualified by "caught short of stock" or "caught short of gold", but I think it's almost always associated with "selling short", which apparently you could do safely under situations where you couldn't possibly be "caught short".

  32. blahedo said,

    May 20, 2010 @ 6:12 pm

    I (Chicago-area, age 32) have the phrase "caught *up* short" with the same meaning as the "caught short" in the OP, although "caught short" to me registers as nothing but a typo for "cut short".

  33. Colin Reid said,

    May 22, 2010 @ 11:40 am

    The cricket example is interesting, in that 'caught' has a technical meaning in the jargon of the game, which I imagine is the most common use of the word in cricket commentary, but this meaning is incompatible with 'caught short of the crease' (because the location of the player is irrelevant to whether or not he can be 'caught'); presumably this phrase means that the player has been 'run out' or 'stumped', but these methods of dismissal actually involve a fielder *throwing* the ball rather than catching it. In fact, even 'caught short of…' could still mean the player was 'caught', with 'short of' referring to the location of the ball when it is caught, such as 'caught short of the boundary', or some goal the player might have been aiming for, as in 'caught short of his century'. So 'caught short of the crease' could cause confusion to those who are not familiar with it as a set phrase.

  34. MM said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

    I posted a photograph of a sign in London illustrating the British sense.

  35. TimT said,

    January 24, 2013 @ 10:23 pm

    At the risk of joining this years late, and with a folk enymology:

    I'd always thought that the term 'caught short' as in 'needing to urinate' was related to the term 'going to spend a penny' which Brits use as a for going to the toilet, becasue in times past (public) toilet doors had a slot in which you placed you penny to gain access. If were 'caught short (of a penny)' you couldn't go to the loo.
    Certainly all the ladies of a certain generation – my mum and aunties who were war children – used both terms, so they were certainly contemporary.

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