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)

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