Cutting the Mustard

By Maeve Maddox

I read an online comment in which the writer said that something wouldn’t “cut the muster.”

I cruised the web a bit to see if this is a common alteration of the idiom to cut the mustard. It doesn’t seem to be too wide spread, but it’s out there.

Apparently there’s a mix-up with the expression to pass muster, meaning “to meet a required standard.” Ex. You call that project “finished”? It doesn’t pass muster with me!

muster: Chiefly Mil. An act of calling together soldiers, sailors, prisoners, etc.; an assembling of people for inspection, exercises, etc.

We can say:
The general mustered his troops.
The private did not pass muster because his shoes were dirty.

The expression to cut the mustard derives from associations with the spicy condiment. The expression keen as mustard dates from 1679. Ex. That lad is keen as mustard. (He’s enthusiastic and bright.)

Mustard is pungent. It’s strong. It’s hot stuff. It adds flavor to bland food.

There was a cowboy expression, the proper mustard, which meant “the genuine article.” Perhaps from that use mustard came to mean “the best.”

The word “cut” in the expression hasn’t anything to do with snipping off leaves. It’s used in the sense it has in the expression to cut a fine figure. A person who can cut the mustard has strength and energy. It’s the lack of these qualities that would cause someone to say, “He’s too old to cut the mustard.”

Being unable to cut the mustard doesn’t always imply that a person is too old. It may mean that the person, of whatever age, simply hasn’t got what it takes to perform a particular activity:

Perhaps I could get a job as a maid in somebody’s house…Idden convinced me I would never cut the mustard at this occupation. Hons and Rebels, Jessica Mitford.

Marlene Dietrich and Rosemary Clooney used to sing a song called Too Old to Cut the Mustard.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


6 Responses to “Cutting the Mustard”

  • Brad K.

    There is another connotation of cut – a cooking term, meaning a particular style of blending ingredients. (From http://www.kids-cooking-activities.com, “Cut in- Blend or cream butter or shortening into a flour mixture.”)

    I just assumed that it took a bit of strength and stamina to make a (full? industrial sized?) batch of mustard sauce or some such.

    And the song about too old to cut the mustard, anymore – I remember that more recently that Rosemary Clooney, the singer was male, and the genre was Country.

    Anyway, ’tis better to cut the mustard, than to cut the cheese. I learned that working at a Waukegan, IL, pizza place, from a high school wrestler. Don’t ask.

  • Don Sassano

    I first heard the term used in the movie “Hud.”

    – Don S

  • Cassandra Jade

    Okay that is interesting. I knew the meaning of muster but I never would have linked it to cutting the mustard, which always seemed like a really silly thing to say given mustard doesn’t really need cutting. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Dan

    Widespread. Get it?

    (Sorry.)

  • Jason

    There is no such thing as, “cutting the mustard.” The phrase is, “passes muster.” Please don’t lend credence to a wrongly worded phrase. It needs to be eradicated from the English language. It’s as bad as, “for all intensive purposes.”

  • Maeve

    Jason,
    Nothing wrong with “cut the mustard” in informal speech. It is an expression that has been in the language for more than a hundred years. “To all intensive purposes” is simply incorrect usage.

    Here’s the definition in the OED:
    to cut the mustard and variants: to come up to expectations, to meet requirements, to succeed. to be (to) the mustard : to be exactly what is required; to be very good or special.
    Ngram Viewer shows the expression used in print since 1876.

Leave a comment: