[Sca-cooks] Mustard - Can you cut it?

Gretchen Beck grm at andrew.cmu.edu
Fri Nov 23 16:36:32 PST 2007

--On Friday, November 23, 2007 7:18 PM -0500 Christine Seelye-King 
<kingstaste at mindspring.com> wrote:

> As with many slang and idiomatic phrases, the origin can be a bit unclear.
> The first recorded use of the phrase cut the mustard was by O. Henry in
> 1907, in a story called The Heart of the West: "I looked around and found
> a proposition that exactly cut the mustard". The modern sense of the
> idiom is 'to succeed; to have the ability to do something; to come up to
> expectations', but the phrase is most often used in the negative form, as
> "can't cut the mustard," meaning 'not able to handle the job'. The cut
> probably refers to harvesting the plant, so if one cannot cut the mustard,
> one cannot supply what is best. A phrase preceding cut the mustard is to
> be the mustard (c. 1903) meaning 'to be special' or 'to be exactly what is
> needed' with mustard being a slang term for importance. There is also
> another phrase keen as mustard meaning 'very enthusiastic'.

The alt.english.usage faq has a little more information:

It may come from a cowboy expression, “the proper mustard", meaning “the 
genuine thing", and a resulting use of “mustard” to denote the best of 
anything. O. Henry in Cabbages and Kings (1894) called mustard “the main 
attraction": “I’m not headlined in the bills, but I’m the mustard in the 
salad dressing, just the same.” Figurative use of “mustard” as a positive 
superlative dates from 1659 in the phrase “keen as mustard", and use of 
“cut” to denote rank (as in “a cut above” ) dates from the 18th century.

toodles, margaret

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