cut the mustard

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jul 6 23:49:19 UTC 2011

In 1888 a letter to The Railroad Brakemen's Journal from someone in
Trenton, Missouri includes some nicknames assigned to workers. A
person named Cox is called the "mustard cutter", and a person named
Downey is called the "wind splitter". Unfortunately, this seems to be
an isolated example, so I do not know if it is related to the
expression "cut the mustard". I submit it as a curiosity. Perhaps
another example with additional context will be found in the future.

OED3 cites "cut the mustard" from 1891 as Ben notes.

Cite: 1888 July, The Railroad Brakemen's Journal (The Railroad
Trainman), Communications, "Yours in B., S. & I., Guess Who", Page
314, Column 2, Number 7, Volume V,  Official Organ of the Brotherhood
of Railroad Brakemen.

Editor Journal: - We have a good lodge here, with twenty-nine members
in good standing, and have four more applicants for membership. ...
The boys who wear the signs on chain-gang are J. J. Jones, Hough,
Phillips, M. B. Howard, Key, Carter, Miller, Blanchard, Nicholson,
Shank (the ladies' man), Hinkins, Dow, Jacks, Mathews, Cox (the
"mustard cutter"), and Downey (the "wind splitter"). The west end K.
C. captains are Finch, Hatch, Rodgers, Simpson, Hurless and


On Wed, Jul 6, 2011 at 5:47 AM, Stephen Goranson <goranson at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Stephen Goranson <goranson at DUKE.EDU>
> Subject:      cut the mustard
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 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
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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