Date: Wed, 20 Apr 1994 09:03:12 EDT
From: Larry Horn LHORN[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]YALEVM.CIS.YALE.EDU
Subject: Re: Cutting mustard
Drawing on various sources (including the OED), David Feldman in "Who Put the
Butter in Butterfly" (a fun book I picked up recently) notes that 'cut the
mustard' is a descendant of two early 20th-cent. expressions, "the proper
mustard" ('OK, genuine') and "all the mustard" ('great'). THe first citing of
the above is from an O. Henry story: "I looked around and found a proposition
that exactly cut the mustard". (A useful trick for philosophers, no doubt.)
Feldman offers two derivations for c.t.m. and its cousins. One is
"mustard" "muster", as in passing muster. The other relates it to the
'dilute' meaning of "cut": you would have to cut mustard with vinegar, water,
etc. (before the advent of "cream-style" mustard--think of your Coleman's)
just as anymore you (or your neighbors) would cut street heroin with, say,
flour to reduce its potency and increase profits.
Curiously, Spears's Dictionary of Slang and Euphemism only gives a
different sense for "cut the mustard", as a variant of "cut the cheese", viz.
'break wind' ("with a reference to the odor rather than the sound"). How we
might have gotten from there to the 'meet or succeed expectations' sense is
rather a mystery, though.