LINGUIST List 10.384

Thu Mar 11 1999

Disc: 'Cutting the Mustard'

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Prof. R.M. Chandler-Burns, Re: 10.379, Disc: 'Cutting the mustard'

Message 1: Re: 10.379, Disc: 'Cutting the mustard'

Date: Thu, 11 Mar 1999 01:24:02 -0500 (EST)
From: Prof. R.M. Chandler-Burns <>
Subject: Re: 10.379, Disc: 'Cutting the mustard'

Ronald Sheen at the U of Quebec in Trois Rivieres, Canada asked on
10.03.99 in Linguist 10.379:

>Assuming that "mustard" does have the meaning of "geniune article"
>does anyone have any instructive comment on the use of "cut" therewith
>to create the meaning "reach the required standard."

I did an AltaVista search for "cut the mustard" (using inverted commas)
and came up with 1908 archives with the expression vs. 18 archives for 
"cut the muster". The following comes from the first listed for the
former search.
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Word for Word: Q&A 
 at URL

The expression "cut the mustard", meaning "to do what is required" 
is first recorded, according to the _Historical Dictionary of 
American Slang_, in 1902 in an O. Henry book, _Works_: 

"So I looked around and found a proposition that exactly cut the mustard."

That's easy enough, but what's the origin? Theories abound. They 
include: that it comes from an old western expression, the proper 
mustard, meaning "the real thing" at first and then "the best". 
Canadian linguist Mark Israel cites O. Henry's _Cabbages and Kings_ 
of 1894, in which he used 'mustard' to mean the main attraction: 
"I'm not headlined in the bills, but I'm the mustard in the salad
dressing, just the same." Israel also says the use of 'mustard' as a 
positive superlative dates from 1659 in the phrase "keen as mustard", 
and the use of 'cut' to denote rank (as in "a cut above") dates from 
the 18th century.

That it comes from separate meanings of both 'cut' and 'mustard.' 
Donald Graeme in his _Dictionary of Modern Phrases_ says 'cut' in this 
sense derives from its meaning of "to perform or achieve", and mustard 
is "hot or sharp", both of which adjectives have come to mean "able 
and clever."

That it comes from the Latin 'mostrare' "to show", as in the military 
phrase "to pass muster" (this accords with Graeme's point about cut 
meaning achieve - old soldiers will tell you that making it to the 
early morning muster parade is sometimes a huge achievement after a 
night in the mess).

Israel adds: "The more-or-less synonymous expression 'cut it' (as in
"'Sorry' doesn't cut it") seems to be more recent and may derive from
'cut the mustard'."
 --------------end search results--------------

R. M. Chandler-Burns
College of Medicine
Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon
Monterrey, MEXICO
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