Cut the Mustard – Meaning and Origin

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

If you’ve heard the term cut the mustard used in informal speech or writing but were confused about what it meant, this article should clear up any problem you have with it. 

It can be used as a positive affirmation to highlight high expectations and to explain how somebody or something did meet the quality you expected. Read on to fully understand this phrase, where it originated from, and how you can use it in writing. 

What Does Cut the Mustard Mean?

When you use the phrase, cut the mustard, it offers an example of high-quality behaviors – defined as meeting a set of expectations either of a person or an organization. 

The phrase is an idiom or group of words that have a meaning not deductible from the individual words. An idiom attaches non-literal and figurative importance to the expression and is intended to add detail to the passage. 

Another excellent example of an idiom is the phrase, Bob’s your uncle, which means something easily accomplished. 

Idioms are tied to informal speech and writing situations and are used to help make a point. They serve as an added detail or explanation to ensure the audience understands what is being said. 

Is it Cut the Muster or Cut the Mustard?

There is some confusion over where the original phrase came from; many believe it is an accidental pronunciation and should be said to cut the muster. Muster is a military term that means an assembly of troops for inspection. However, the exact phrase, cutting muster, would provide a negative connotation, and there is no proof that the word mustard ever replaced muster. 

Cut the Mustard Origins

Cut the mustard ngram
nGram: Cut the Mustard Use

The idiomatic phrase is much more likely developed from the superlative use of the word mustard. Mustard has long been used figuratively to create an association between the heat the flavor of mustard lends to food to highlight the energy and zest of people’s behavior. 

The first recorded incidence of this use dates back to the late 1600s when the term keen as mustard was used. Relatively, the word cut has also long been meant to mean an exhibition of some sort, such as cutting a rug – or being a good dancer. 

To cut the mustard appeared in North America at the end of the 19th century published in a newspaper criticizing a government official, stating, ‘He tried to run the post office business under Cleveland’s administration but “couldn’t cut the mustard.’” [The Ottawa Herald]

Examples Used in a Sentence

Strapping herself to a pick-up truck on a runway in Jordan and being chased by an aeroplane – all in a day’s work for British filmmaker Vicky Jewson, determined to cut the mustard as a member of the small but growing list of female action film directors. [Huffington Post UK]

With a chance of cutting the mustard at a world-class eatery, frying bin lid burgers in laybys may become a distant memory. [The Guardian]

Van Winkle does not get a pass either and must participate in semi-annual auditions to ensure he cuts the mustard as a second tenor. [North Jersey]

Let’s Review

Cut the mustard is an example of an idiom, a phrase that provides a figurative meaning to the passage that offers detail and explanation. It is a phrase that is often used informally and is used to reiterate a high-quality set of expected behaviors.