cut the mustard

This phrase is from a metaphor where the mustard is something that adds flavor or zest to life, something that is good. Something that cuts the mustard is very good.

The phrase dates at least 1898. From the Decator, Illinois Herald Despatch of 6 April of that year:

John J. Graves, tight but that ha cun’t cut the mustard.

Mustard has a long history of being used as a metaphor for something powerful or biting. First in a negative context, as in John Heywood’s A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue (1546):

Where her woordes seemd hony,...Now are they mustard.

And somewhat later in a positive sense. From James Howell’s Lexicon Tetraglotton (1659):

As strong as Mustard.

The origin of the cut portion of the phrase is uncertain. It could be a reference to cutting a mustard seed, a very difficult task. Or it could be a conflation with a cut above, to cut the mustard is to be better than mustard.

The phrase is also rendered as to be the mustard and it’s very similar to keen as mustard.

Various explanations that it is a corruption of a military phrase to cut muster or that mustard is a difficult crop to harvest have no evidence to support them.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; ADS-L)

curfew

The word curfew originates in the medieval practice of ringing a bell at a fixed time in the evening as an order to bank the hearths and prepare for sleep. It comes from the Anglo-Norman coeverfu, the equivalent of the Old French cuevre-fe, or cover fire.

We can see the Anglo-Norman in the 1285 Statutes of London:

Apres Coeverfu personé a Seint Martyn le graunt.
(After Curfew person on Saint Martin the great.)

And the English a few decades later in the Seuyn Sages, c.1320:

Than was the lawe in Rome toun, That, whether lord or garsoun That after Corfu be founde rominde, Faste men scholden hem nimen and binde.
(Then was the law in Roman towns, that, when a man or boy is found roaming about after curfew, men should take and bind him fast.)

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

cunt

This word for the female genitalia dates back to the Middle English period, c.1325. It’s exact origin is unknown, but is related to the Old Norse kunta, a word with cognates in several other Germanic languages. From the Proverbs of Hendyng, a manuscript from sometime before 1325:

Ȝeue þi cunte to cunnig and craue affetir wedding.
(Give your cunt wisely and ask for what is due after the wedding.)

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craps

The word craps, the dice game, comes from the word crab and is unrelated to the slang term for excrement. It is a French corruption of the English crabs which stood for a throw of two or three. Why the English called such a toss crabs is not known, but it could be related not to the crustacean, but rather to the apple, which is sour and undesirable. It dates at least to 1768. From a letter by Lord Carlisle written to George Selwin in that year:

If you are still so foolish, and will play, the best thing I can wish you is, that you may win and never throw crabs.

But the modern form craps does not appear until the mid-19th century. From J.H. Greene’s Exposure of Arts and Miseries of Gambling (1843):

The game of craps...is a game lately introduced into New Orleans, and is fully equal to faro in its...ruinous effects.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

crap

The word crap, meaning excrement, is from an English dialectical word originally meaning chaff or the discarded husks of grain. The ultimate origin is not certain, but it could be related to the Old French crappe, meaning siftings or grain left on the floor of a barn, and the medieval Latin crappa. From Promptorium Parvulorum Sive Clericorum, Lexicon Anglo-Latinum Princeps, from c.1440:

Crappe, or gropys of corne, acus.
(Crap, or crapis of corne, acus.)

By the end of the 15th century, crap was being used to refer to the residue left by rendering or melting fat.

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commando

The sense of the word commando, meaning an elite soldier, appeared during the Second World War with the raids on occupied France by elite British forces of that name. Winston Churchill wrote to General Ismay on 2 July 1940:

If it be true that a few hundred German troops have been landed on Jersey or Guernsey by troop-carriers, plans should be studied to land secretly by night on the islands and kill or capture the invaders. This is exactly one of the exploits for which the Commandos would be suited.

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crackerjack

Crackerjack meaning excellent or superb is an Americanism dating to 1888. Crack-a-jack is a variant. The origin of the term is obscure. From New York Times of 23 April 1888:

The Canadian owner, Mr. Forbes, has Rowland, Brait, and several others in McDonald’s stable, and Charles Miller has four, two of them being 2-year-olds which he expects will become “Cracker Jacks.”

The brand name for the caramel popcorn product comes from the slang usage. The name was trademarked in 1896.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; ADS-L; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times)

cracker

This contemptuous name for a poor, white resident of the southern United States comes from a 16th century term for a braggart or liar, one who makes cracks. From Alexander Barclay’s 1509 Shyp of Folys:

Crakars and bosters with Courters auenterous.
(Crackers and boasters with Courtiers adventurous.)

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cotton-picking

Believe it or not the adjective cotton-picking comes from Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes cartoons and is used as a general adjective of disapproval, similar to damned. From a 1952 cartoon:

Get your cotton-pickin’ hooks offa me!

Bugs may not have been the first to use it, but he gets credit for first recorded use.

But the noun cottonpicker is older. It dates to around 1919 and refers to a contemptible person. From Joel Chandler Harris’s Dizzed:

What are these boys from the South? Are they cotton-pickers, corn-crackers, stump jumpers, ridge-runners or bog-leapers?

Cottonpicker has also served as a derogatory term for a black person since at least 1930. While cottonpicker has distinct racist overtones, the adjective cotton-picking does not carry them, instead being a reference to the unpleasant nature of the work.1


1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 491-92.

cop

This slang word for a policeman most likely comes from caper, an Old French word meaning to seize, to take. It was adopted into English as to cap by 1589 when it appears in Richard Harvey’s Plaine Perceuall the Peace-maker of England:

Cap him sirra, if he pay it not.

By the beginning of the 18th century, the pronunciation and corresponding spelling had broadened to cop. From Edward Ward’s Dissenting Hypocrite (1704):

If the Cruel Stork should come, He’d Tyrannize and Cop up some [Frogs].

The shift to noun and the meaning of policeman (copper, one who cops) occurred about a century and a half later. From the 1846 Sessions Papers:

I have heard the police called coppers before.

The clipping to cop occurred by 1859. From George Matsell’s Rogue’s Lexicon of that year:

Oh! where will be...all the cops and beaks so knowin’ A hundred stretches hence?

There are several false etymologies floating about. One has it as an acronym meaning Constable On Patrol. Not only is the word older than any other known acronym, but the original form of the noun is copper, not cop.

Other stories have the word coming from either copper buttons on their uniforms or from their copper badges. There is no evidence to support this. The path from the Old French verb is rather clear.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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