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Pass the muster, er, mustard

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You might get some funny looks if you say the hot dog you're eating "passes the mustard," even if it's a really good hot dog. Those looks will only grow more curious if you try to correct yourself by saying it "cuts muster."

While "passing the mustard" is about handing over the Dijon or spicy brown, "cutting the mustard" is the phrase that means to meet expectations, similar to "passing muster. And "cutting muster" just isn't a thing.

The expression "pass muster" dates back to the 16th century in the Oxford English Dictionary and means to meet the required standard. When it first came into the language, the phrase was actually "pass the muster," but by the 1700s, the "the" had disappeared.

The term "muster" goes back to the military. Since the 15th century it has referred to a calling together of people for inspection or exercises or to a role call. For example, formations are still referred to as "musters."

When it comes to "cut the mustard," we know what it means, but we don't know where it comes from. It shows up in the early 1890s as slang and often appeared in quotes. For example, a story in The Omaha World-Herald in 1891 mentions how three members of the Omaha baseball club failed to "cut the mustard."

Around this time there are other expressions that use "mustard" such as "hot as mustard" or "keen as mustard." Mustard was used figuratively for "excellent." It's possible that's where "cut the mustard" comes from — the act of engaging in excellence.

It could also just be a variant of "pass muster," but that's not as fun. Where do you think "cutting the mustard" comes from? Let us know at language@michiganradio.org.

Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.