Where does the phrase cut the mustard come from?

As with many slang and idiomatic phrases, the origin can be a bit unclear. The first recorded use of the phrase cut the mustard was by O. Henry in 1907, in a story called The Heart of the West: “I looked around and found a proposition that exactly cut the mustard”. The modern sense of the idiom is ‘to succeed; to have the ability to do something; to come up to expectations’, but the phrase is most often used in the negative form, as “can’t cut the mustard,” meaning ‘not able to handle the job’. The cut probably refers to harvesting the plant, so if one cannot cut the mustard, one cannot supply what is best. A phrase preceding cut the mustard is to be the mustard (c. 1903) meaning ‘to be special’ or ‘to be exactly what is needed’ withmustard being a slang term for importance. There is also another phrase keen as mustard meaning ‘very enthusiastic’.


  1. Timbo -  July 14, 2016 - 1:09 am

    Alternatively, but equally military, soldiers who did a good job at something were allowed to skip (cut) the muster, and go on leave early…

  2. Tamsin Mc Cormick -  June 22, 2016 - 9:43 am

    It comes from an old military practice of mustering the men and then cutting out the men no longer fit to fight . You had to be good to cut the muster or mustered (men) . Mustered became mustard somehow !!

    • TODD KINZER -  June 24, 2016 - 10:31 am

      Tamsin: Now that makes sense! People so commonly mutate words, especially in “old sayings” where the origin seems to be lost. Thanks for your input, confirmed more of what I thought than the “mustard plant cutting” theory.

  3. Younes -  March 30, 2016 - 12:21 am

    So useful. I learned a lot of things. Thank you


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