cut the mustard

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jul 21 06:23:12 UTC 2011

While searching for examples of "cut the mustard" I found some
examples of "cut much mustard." This phrasing makes the interpretation
of "mustard" based on "pass muster" unlikely, I think, within the
thoughts of these particular early writers.

Cite: 1901 July 5, Kansas City Star, Advertisement for: The Depot
Carriage and Baggage Co., Page 5, Column 6, Kansas City, Missouri.

A girl gets tired of sitting on the front porch night after night with
no other entertainment than your low, musical voice. You may swear by
yonder moon that she is the onlyest only, but every woman takes that
for granted anyhow, and so you can't cut much mustard on that [?]ay.

I am not certain what the [?] character is in the page image. It looks
like an "l".

Cite: 1905 December, Power: Devoted to the Generation and Transmission
of Power, High Pressure Steam Pipe Flanges by Franz Koester, Page 737,
Column 2, Hill Publishing Co. [McGraw-Hill], New York. (Google Books
full view)

One man runs a rivetin' machine, another manages a wind-jammin' tool,
still another sets tubes, an' not one of the bunch, outside of the
foreman mebbe, could any more lay out an, build a boiler than he could
turn handsprings over the moon. Workin' that way, of course, a man has
use for his hands, but mighty little for his head. The thinkin' seems
to be done by the machines. With plenty of newfangled tools for every
sort of work it's all dead easy; but such men wouldn't have cut much
mustard in my old handshop.

Cite: 1909 August 16, Salt Lake Telegram, The Orpheum Has An Average
Bill, GNB Page 10, Column 6, Salt Lake City, Utah. (GenealogyBank)

His work is high class every minute and is genuinely clever and
original. The youngster also gives Americans an idea of the popular
dance in the London music halls. He is the headliner of the bill and
without him it would not cut much mustard.


On Wed, Jul 6, 2011 at 10:22 PM, Jonathan Lighter
<wuxxmupp2000 at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Re: cut the mustard
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> This looks like a valid ex. to me. Justas Shank is a "ladies' man"
> (self-explanatory), Downey is a "wind-splitter" (someone who can move very
> rapidly: see HDAS IV on some parallel world not quite identical to Earth),
> and Cox a "mustard cutter" (someone who gets things done efficiently).
> JL
> On Wed, Jul 6, 2011 at 7:49 PM, Garson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at>wrote:
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>> -----------------------
>> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>> Poster:       Garson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM>
>> Subject:      Re: cut the mustard
>> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> 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
>> Harrington.
>> Garson
>> 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
>> >
>> >
>> > ------------------------------------------------------------
>> > The American Dialect Society -
>> >
>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>> The American Dialect Society -
> --
> "If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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