"cut the muster" (1912)
aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jul 4 22:01:33 UTC 2011
I have a couple of potentially interesting pointers. First, "Stanford
Dictionary of Anglicized Words and Phrases" (no, I'm not kidding--Stanford
is the author, not the university) has "Muster" as English for "a show" or
"an exhibition", but "possibly 'has therefore been confused with the
The actual entry clarifies it:
*muster, sb.: Anglo-Ind. fr. Port, /mostra:/ a sample, a pattern.
Another source suggests "amostra" as being equivalent to "muster".
So there is a possibility that "cut the muster" is /not/ derived from "pass
the muster", which comes from military or "muster" rolls. Proof, however, is
hard to come by. I did find /one/ source! As usual, I'm including full
details rather than sentence fragments, as details are important.
Observations on the Duties and Responsibilities Involved in the Management
of Mints; Chiefly with Reference to the Rules and Practices of Those in
India. With Suggestions for Their Improvement. By Bt. Major J. T. Smith.
Madras: Printed by P. R. Hunt--American Mission Press. 1848.
[Assay of gold.]
> The assay of gold is effected by means of Nitric acid, and consists
> essentially of four processes, viz. weighing, quartation, digestion,
> weighing. It is carried on as follows:--First. A certain fixed quantity of
> the specimen or "muster" and which is invariably the same in all trials
> (usually about 15 grs.) is very exactly weighed. Secondly. It is then
> alloyed by cupelling with it, very carefully, in the Assay furnace, a
> certain precise quantity of pure silver, usually about two and a half times
> its own weight. Thirdly. It is brought to the form and condition most suited
> to the full and free action of an acid, by being laminated, or flattened to
> a very thin sheet, and afterwards boiled or digested in strong Nitric acid,
> on a sand bath; and Fourthly. After being fully washed, dried, and annealed,
> to restore its metallic lustre, it is again weighed.
This, of course, in itself does not get to the "cutting" part. It just
defines "muster". But skipping a few pages ahead--and back--gives more
> A couple of small pieces, called "musters," of clean metal, weighing about
> half an ounce each, are cut off from every bar, one from each end, and
> portions of them /assayed/. This process shows the proportion per cent of
> pure metal contained in the "musters," whence is determined the value of the
> bar they belong to. The musters are cut from opposite ends of each bar, to
> guard against the risk of accidental imperfections in the melting, whereby
> the mass might not have been perfectly incorporated, and consequently be
> irregular in fineness, which would be shown by their differing in fineness
> from one another ; when this is the case, the bar is remelted.
[Onjection that it requires science to cut musters, replied to.]
> 48. In regard to the objection found on the scientific knowledge required
> to cut musters, we may say that it is one without foundation, as we think it
> a mistake to suppose that it requires any skill or science to cut the
> musters sent for assay.
[Even if musters are wrongly cut, it is better that the parties interested
should do this.]
> 49. Admitting, however, for the sake of argument, that it were possible to
> cut a muster improperly from a perfectly homogeneous bar, (such a muster as
> would be received by the Assayer and submitted to examination,) it would
> even then be better that it should be done by the joint concurrence of the
> parties interested in it, than by the Assay Master, or any other person. If
> those parties allow an error to take place, they must do so at their own
> expense, but if a third party were granted the authority to direct
> operations arbitrarily, he might, if so inclined, persist in doing wrong to
> the injury of others who had no remedy for his misconduct.
Part 50 goes on to elaborate on the argument and discussing details of
One interesting detail is that "pass the muster" appears earlier than "pass
muster", which appears to dominate in the middle of 19th century and grows
exponentially toward 1900s. This is reflected in the OED, as the earlier
examples all include "the". But one thing is clear--"passing muster" is
related to military rolls, which nothing quite as clear is available on
"cutting the muster". And Google Ngrams show that "cut the muster" is even
less frequent in print than "pass the muster".
One possibility is that "cut the muster" was an independent expression in
the middle of the 19th century that blended with "pass muster" and
eventually became indistinguishable in meaning. One thing it is
/not/--derived from "cut the mustard". If anything, perhaps "cut the
mustard" was influenced by "cut the muster" and not vice versa.
In fact, a quick search on "cut the mustard" in GB (pre-1912) finds a number
of instances (with duplicates) that use it /literally/, as a gardening
expression for cutting down mustard plants. In that instance, the
metaphorical extension that means "pass the test/requirements" makes no
sense, unless it was derived from "cut the muster". The extension "cut the
mustard or let someone else do it" is quite different. But both of these
existed side-by-side in the 1890s-1910s.
>From 1908 (literal):
We had a little difference of opinion over the growing of mustard and cress.
> Mohammed assured us that he knew all about it, and seeing that he would be
> deeply hurt by any interference, we handed the seeds over to him. Judge of
> our astonishment when, two days later, they came up with a beautiful margin
> of about 6in. of bare soil round each plant. Nor would he let us cut the
> mustard until it was on the fourth leaf and extremely hot to the taste. It
> was evident to him that we knew nothing about gardening and must be saved
> from foolish acts.
Also from 1908 ("qualified"):
The Thompson telegraph school, of Minneapolis, recently sent some of their
> graduates to the M. & St. L. Understand they were not heavy enough to cut
> the mustard.
>From 1909 ("do X or cut the mustard"):
> If a seeming error is made do not roast or nurse a grouch; just say "Never
> mind that, we'll have better success in the next inning," or "Get into the
> game, brothers, it ain't too late yet, we'll cut the mustard next time."
> Don't be a grouch, don't be a member of a caboose committee, don't indulge
> in street-corner criticisms, but attend Division meetings, support your
> officers and committeemen in their work, push and pull the best you know
> how, and "get into the game."
>From a poem in the same issue:
We are going to "cut the mustard,"
> Likewise be "all to the custard,"
> But today we're in poor fettle,
> So we'll let our feelings settle;
> But we're going to show our metal.
For some reason, a large fraction of GB hits (pre-1912) for metaphorical
"cut the mustard" (both senses) come from railroad unions magazines.
NB: Note that I have no printed evidence that "cut the muster" can be found
anywhere between 1848 and 1895.
On Mon, Jul 4, 2011 at 3:50 PM, Baker, John <JMB at stradley.com> wrote:
> OCR error for "cut the master's throat," so, no.
> John Baker
> -----Original Message-----
> From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf
> Of Wilson Gray
> Sent: Monday, July 04, 2011 2:18 PM
> To: ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU
> Subject: Re: "cut the muster" (1912)
> "E'en cut the muster's throat ..."
> GB 1858
> Close. No cigar?
> All say, "How hard it is that we have to die!"---a strange complaint
> to come from the mouths of people who have had to live.
> -Mark Twain
> On Mon, Jul 4, 2011 at 8:32 AM, Ben Zimmer
> <bgzimmer at babel.ling.upenn.edu> wrote:
> > A popular explanation for the idiom "cut the mustard" is that it derives
> > from "cut the muster" (related somehow to "pass muster"). The problem is
> > that the "muster" variant doesn't show up often, and not at all in
> the late
> > 19th century when the "mustard" variant begins to appear. OED3 dates "cut
> > the mustard" from 1891, with a cite from the _Galveston (Texas)
> Daily News_.
> > (There are also a number of cites from 1891 in the _Omaha (Neb.) Morning
> > World-Herald_.) The earliest "cut the muster" I've found is from 1912:
> > 1912 _The Illio_ (Univ. of Illinois) 527 C.A.A. track team can't cut the
> > muster. Beaten four points.
> > Anything earlier out there?
> > --bgz
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