Cut the Mustard

Meanings of “Cut the Mustard”

The phrase “cut the mustard” means to be successful or meet one’s expectations. It also means to succeed in doing something.

Origin of “Cut the Mustard”

The reason why mustard was chosen as an example is still unclear. The phrase “cut the mustard” is stated to have been in use before it appeared in print for the first time in 1889 when a US-based newspaper, The Ottawa Herald, published it in its August publication. In the newspaper, it goes thus; “He tried to run the post office business under Cleveland’s administration, but “couldn’t cut the mustard.” Since then, this phrase has been used in various contexts.

Examples in Literature

Example #1

 Too Old to Cut the Mustard by Rosemary Clooney

“Too old, too old, he’s too old
To cut the mustard anymore.

Well, when I was young I had a lotta pep
I could get around I didn’t need no help
But since I’m old and a gettin’ gray
The people all look at me and say.

Too old, too old, he’s too old
To cut the mustard anymore
Buddy’s gettin’ too old, Buck’s done got too old
He’s too old to cut the mustard anymore.”

This lyric sheds light on the old age and the public outcry about the old not being able to meet any expectations. The singer states that when he was young, he used to do a lot of things. However, when he has gotten old, people around him discourage him, saying that he is too old to do anything. The use of the phrase not only shows repetition but also a metrical pattern to add to the melodious impacts of the lyric.

Example #2

america in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America by Allan Metcalf, David K. Barnhart

In the twentieth century, Americans were able to cut the mustard, that is, “to do what is needed.” The first evidence comes from O. Henry in 1904; “So I looked around and found a proposition that exactly cut the mustard.”
It is one of our most puzzling expressions. Does it have to do with cultivating or harvesting the mustard plant? Does it have to do with the slang expression be the proper mustard, that is, “be the real thing,” or be all to the mustard, “be very good”?

Although the writers have discussed that there are much extended metaphors or indirect meanings of the phrase, they come to the point by using the reference from O. Henry, a popular American writer. Henry says that success or achievement of success is in doing something, though, there were many uses of this phrase at that time.

Example #3

Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford by Scott Eyman

His treatment of writers, indeed, most of his co-workers was pointed and rather in the matter of a lofty professor drilling sense into the mushy heads of freshman. “If you didn’t cut the mustard,” remembered Mark Armistead, “he’d have nothing to do with  you. If you did cut the mustard, you became an unhappy man. He’d sit on your back, making you do a bit better. He was a perfectionist.”

These remarks describe the character of John Ford, and also his thoughts about writing. He used to succeed come what may. That is why Mark Armistead has used this phrase about him twice. He used to say that even if you succeed in writing a good draft the first time, he used to sit with the writers to revise and take it to the next level. The phrase shows its direct meaning in this passage.

Example #4

The Money Burn by Tony Foster’

“Package of money? That sounds like a yarn to me, Mr. Ellis. He neve said anything to me about money. Trouble with youngsters nowadays is they’ve got their brains so scrambled on dope and such like they don’t know what they’re talking about from one minute to the next. No sir, I let him go for one reason only. He couldn’t cut the mustard! If they can’t cut the mustard they’ve got to go, right?”

The narrator is talking to Mr. Ellis that today’s young people have a short attention span. He is specifically talking about a young man that if he cannot succeed in the business or the work, must not stay there for long. The phrase has been used in a direct sense.

Example in Sentences

Example #1: “I always had a lot of faith in her. I was proven right when she cut the mustard and became a pilot, making me and the whole town mighty proud!”

Example #2: “Bob can never cut the mustard! He can try his best. He could go anywhere but without hard work, he knows that he is a failure. I have told him several times, and he does not listen to me. Let us see.”

Example #3: “It was when Jane cut the mustard, did everyone realize how talented and smart she was. Until then she was always considered a mouse who didn’t have a voice in her.”

Example #4: “Kate brought up her children the best way she could. But, it was only Jack who cut the mustard and made her proud. Peter turned out to be an utter failure.”

Example #5: “Janet knew that there was no going back, that she had to choose between ‘do or die’. So, she worked hard and cut the mustard, astonishing everyone.”