Cutting The (Linguistic) Mustard

Recently I mentioned, with some asperity, that a particular effort didn’t “cut the mustard.” Two of my colleagues looked at me in bewilderment. They’d apparently never heard the phrase before, and had no idea that “cutting the mustard” meant meeting a desired standard of performance. To them, it was just another inexplicable saying that would have to be added to their growing list of quaint “Bobisms.”

Where does “cut the mustard” come from? Like many idioms, its lineage is disputed. Some sources contend it is British in origin and refers to the physical act of cutting down mustard plants, which requires sufficiently sharp tools; dull tools therefore would not “cut the mustard.” Others believe that it is an Americanism, perhaps originating in Texas, where a use of the phrase was found in a Galveston newspaper in the 1890s. O. Henry also used “cut the mustard” in some of his popular short stories in the early 1900s, which may have helped to spread the saying to the United States at large. One source argues that mustard has long been associated with being strong or sharp, and “cutting the mustard” relates to that notion.

I have a related, but slightly different, theory: I think that because mustard can be so powerfully flavored, the other ingredients of your sandwich or dinner must be sufficiently tasty to hold their own and make their presence known. I’m guessing that, out on the dusty plains of Texas, a cowboy took a bite into a sandwich and realized that the meat and other sandwich makings were so insubstantial and bland that they were overwhelmed by the pungent mustard. He then packed his saddlebags, spurred his horse, and ruefully concluded that the unsatisfying sandwich wouldn’t cut the mustard.

Can it really be that “cut the mustard” has passed totally out of usage by anyone under, say, 60? If so, that’s too bad. It’s one of those idioms that adds flavor — pun intended — to our language.

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