As with many slang and idiomatic phrases, the origin of cut the mustard isn’t so … clear-cut. But, let’s see if we can’t crack this etymological jar open just a bit.
What does “cut the mustard” mean?
To cut the mustard is “to reach or surpass the desired standard or performance” or more generally “to succeed, to have the ability to do something.” For instance, Beyoncé really cut the mustard in her new song.
Most often, the phrase is used in negative constructions for when something doesn’t live up to expectations or can’t do the job, e.g., The quarterback couldn’t cut the mustard in the playoffs.
When did we start saying “cut the mustard”?
Cut the mustard appears to be an American original. Evidence for the phrase can be found in a Galveston, Texas newspaper in 1891–92.
The author O. Henry—who spent many years in Texas, where he may have picked up the expression—used cut the mustard in his 1907 collection of short stories The Heart of the West: “I looked around and found a proposition that exactly cut the mustard.”
What is the origin of the word mustard?
The word mustard itself goes back, via French, to the Latin mustum (English must), which was an altogether different substance. It was the juice squeezed from grapes before it was made into wine. Mustard is so named because the condiment was originally made by making mustards seeds into a paste with must.
What does mustard have to do with excellence?
It’s not clear exactly why we say cut the mustard. Some have proposed literal derivations, such as cutting down (harvesting) mustard plants. Others have suggested connections to the phrase pass muster, when a solider gets approval after troops are assembled together for inspection. Evidence for these origins are wanting.
Clues can be found in earlier mustard expressions. Mustard adds spice, zest, piquancy. This may not be obvious in everyday yellow mustard, but slather some English mustard like Colman’s on your frankfurter … and you’ll be feeling the heat!
That’s why, as early as the 1600s, hot/strong/keen as mustard was a figure of speech for something extremely powerful, passionate, or enthusiastic. These qualities are very admirable or desirable, so it’s perhaps no surprise that mustard took the jump to connotations of “genuine, superior, excellent.”
Earlier in the 20th century, people even went around calling each other mustard! He’s mustard, for example, means “He’s great.” It’s this idea, of mustard as “excellent” or “great,” that seems to be at work in cut the mustard.
Mustard is … awesomesauce!
If this mustard business seems odd or old-fashioned to you, then consider sauce. In contemporary slang, if someone has the sauce, it means they are amazing in some way, from being stylish to being confident to being talented. And then there’s awesomesauce, a playful expression for something “spectacular.”
Sadly, ketchup and mayo haven’t spread beyond the hamburger bun, but other condiment-related words add figurative flavor to our language. Consider spicy, as in a spicy remark, or salty, which can be slang for “bitter” or “irritated.”
Can you think of other food-inspired metaphors in English?