Since the term ‘keen as mustard’ was first recorded in 1672, it has been used to convey a sense of enthusiasm or keenness. To ‘cut the mustard’ first emerged in the USA toward the end of the 19th century and was used to convey if something reached a particular standard. The phrase first appeared in print in the Kansas newspaper The Ottawa Herald in August, 1889:
He tried to run the post office business under Cleveland's administration, but “couldn't cut the mustard.”
There are a number of proposed explanations of how the idiom ‘cut the mustard’ originated but two in particular stand out as being most plausible.
Origin #1: At the time when mustard was one of the main crops produced in East Anglia in the east of England, it was harvested by hand using a scythe – a long-handled tool with a curved blade. Mustard plants had a reputation for being tough and stringy and, if the blades were not sharp, workers struggled to ‘cut the mustard’.
Origin #2: Perhaps a more credible explanation, ‘cut the mustard’ is also said to have originated from an old military practice of mustering soldiers for inspection and cutting out those who were no longer fit to serve. When a unit was created it was called ‘mustering in’ and when it was disbanded, it was known as being ‘mustered out’. Somehow, over time, the word ‘mustered’ became ‘mustard’. This is also where the phrase to ‘pass muster’ originated.
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