cut the mustard

Discuss word origins and meanings.
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cut the mustard

Post by Archived Topic » Wed Jul 21, 2004 6:58 am

I know all about cutting the cheese -but what about cutting the mustard?

John,Ca
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cut the mustard

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Jul 21, 2004 7:13 am

How long you in for?
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cut the mustard

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Jul 21, 2004 7:27 am

John, I’s loves to hear good etymologists proposing possible word and phrase origins.
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Word Detective

The origin of "cut the mustard," meaning "to measure up to standards" or "to be sufficient or successful in accomplishing a task," is the subject of a long-standing debate among language experts. We do know that "cut the mustard" first appeared in print in an O. Henry story in 1907 and has been in pretty constant use since then, but exactly to what mustard "cut the mustard" might refer is still up in the air.

One theory is that "mustard" in the phrase should actually be "muster," meaning "examination." To "muster" troops is to assemble them for inspection, those who meet the necessary standards then being said to have "passed muster." It is possible that "cut the mustard" is simply a mangled form of "cut the muster," with "cut" being used in the sense of "to manage" or "to surpass." One problem with this theory is the lack of any known use of the supposedly proper form "cut the muster" in print.

It is also possible that "cut the mustard" refers to "cutting" (adulterating) mustard to make it less pungent, but this origin, as you note, seems unlikely because the idea of weakening strong mustard is almost completely opposite to the popular "strong enough" sense of "cut the mustard." And, since mustard plants are not notably difficult to harvest, it's not likely that "cut the mustard" refers to any special degree of agricultural stamina.

Fortunately, there's a glimmer of sense in all this. Years before "cut the mustard" showed up to mystify us, "mustard" was being used as slang for "that which adds zest" or "the best of anything," obviously referring to real mustard. To "cut the mustard" would then logically mean "to match the best in any situation."
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For a somewhat different cut on the subject:

Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins

Whatever the origins of ‘can’t cut the mustard,’ and they are about as clear as mustard, the expression ‘too old to cut the mustard’ is always applied to men today and conveys the idea of sexual inability. Can’t cut the mustard,” however, means not to be able to handle any job for any reason, not just because of old age. Preceding the derivation of ‘too old to cut the mustard’ by more than half a century, it derives from the expression ‘to be the mustard.’ ‘Mustard’ was slang for the ‘genuine article’ or ‘main attraction’ at the time. Perhaps someone cutting up to show that he was ‘the mustard,’ or the greatest, was said ‘to cut the mustard’ and the phrase later came to mean to be able to fill the bill or do the important or main job. In any case, O. Henry first used the words in this sense I his story ‘Heart of the West’ (1907) when he wrote: ‘I looked around and found a proposition that exactly cut the mustard.’ Today ‘can’t cut the mustard’ is usually ‘can’t cut it’ or ‘can’t hack it.’ A recent variant on ‘too old to cut the mustard’ is ‘if you can’t cut the mustard, you can lick the jar.’ [[I like it, but, of course, not for personal reasons]].
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Ken G - November 20, 2002
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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cut the mustard

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Jul 21, 2004 7:41 am

Ken , you certainly cut the mustard with that erudite exposition.I've been browsing around here the past few days &I had a feeling you would be the one w/ the complete response(annotated &w/footntes,no less.)

John, Calif
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cut the mustard

Post by Archived Reply » Wed Jul 21, 2004 7:56 am

John, you can't even lick the jar.
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