cut the mustard

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Wed Jul 6 09:47:52 UTC 2011

Might "cut the mustard" once have meant cutting a path through overgrown mustard weeds,
getting out of a rough patch, ability to escape a fix? If so, comparisons to
mustard quality and to muster may have come later.

The 19th-century US West left stories sf mustard thickets. The Nation 49 (1889) 308 tells of mustard plants eleven feet high.
A fellow reportedly "once got lost _on horseback_ in a wild-mustard field."
In another history,"Undaunted, Spurgeon [circa 1874?] cut a road through the wild mustard
and induced the stage operators to come to his city."
(Orange County through four centuries, 60.)

The OED' s first quote in context:
1891 The Galveston Daily News,  April 9; pg. 4;  col C
  "The Nebraska legislators ran high jinks out of the city on the night of their adjournment.
They applied several coats of carmine hue and cut the mustard over all their predecessors."
Did they "paint the town red," then quickly leave?

1894 McClure's magazine, Volume 2, p.253
"I never killed anybody, though they say I did. It was a frame on me, absotively. I cut the mustard, and
they caught me in Key West." [escaped]

1907 Agricultural advertising: Volume 18 - Page 199
"Loosen up and let the politicians, the bulls and bears of Wall Street, and calamity magazine publishers
 go over in the back lot and kick each others' slats in while we cut the mustard." [while we get out of there?]

1909 Hunter-trader-trapper: Volume 17, Issue 5 - Page 101
"The live coyote we tied to the buggy wheel, and while I was gone after a strap and chain he bit the rope off
and "cut the mustard" for parts unknown with about a foot of rope still hanging to him." [escaped]

Stephen Goranson

The American Dialect Society -

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