March 30, 2000
Charles McNeill wrote:
"Can't cut the mustard"? It is an old phrase, and I have often wondered about its origin. It certainly is not intuitive or self-explanatory. (Mustard, as we generally think of it, is not difficult or challenging to "cut" - and that's not what we usually do with it, anyway.) The normal usage of this phrase seems to mean: lacking in either skill, strength, energy, or willpower, or in general, "not up to snuff" -- a phrase you have previously discussed.
Like up to snuff, the semantic origin of cut the mustard is still debated. The only thing anyone can state with assurance is that the first citation dates from the turn of the century: "So I looked around and found a proposition that exactly cut the mustard" (O. Henry, Works, 1902).
There are two schools of thought about the mustard in question. One school believes that we are talking about actual mustard, the same stuff you put on sandwiches and hot dogs. The other school thinks this mysterious mustard is probably a variant pronunciation of 'muster'.
My intuition tells me to throw my lot in with this second group. Cut the mustard and 'pass (the) muster' are synonymous. Mustard and muster sound alike. Obviously it is the same word, right? I am in good company if I choose this explanation, but I can't shake the bad feeling I get when I look at the pile of books and articles on my desk and see that not a single one has unearthed a citation for cut the muster. If this were really a variant pronunciation, there should be citations everywhere for both cut the mustard and cut the muster.
If anyone out there finds this missing link, then we can close the book on the mustard v. muster controversy. Until then, let's look at the ways people have stretched that poor condiment mustard to make it fill this void.
There are those who claim that the mustard here refers to the mustard seed itself. The seed is very small and has a hard shell. Thus, cutting the mustard is a difficult thing to do. Those who succeed in cutting the mustard (seed) are winners, and therefore up to snuff.
Others point out that mustard plants grow as large as twelve feet, and must be cut down in order to harvest the seeds. I haven't found an argument that explains the semantic leap from this cutting and the 'achievement' meaning.
Still others refer to the vinegar that is used in the making of mustard. The ground mustard seeds are a base, the vinegar is an acetic acid. My knowledge of chemistry fails me here, but I trust the fine people who actually make mustard when they tell me that vinegar is needed to cut the mustard (powder).
Finally, there are those that point out a use of mustard that referred to smart or courageous people early in the 20th century. They argue that this is the mustard in question, but again, the semantic leap seems to be a long one.
The truth is that each of these proposed etymologies has a logical or linguistic weakness. I wanted to vote for one here in my conclusion, but I am afraid I can't find a single explanation that cuts the mustard.
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