A seldom-used solecism closely related to the equally obscure 'cut the mustard'. Both are meant to convey the sense of something failing to reach an expected standard, but how did we end up with these expressions?

Interestingly enough, there is such a thing as 'cutting mustard': Mustard is a condiment made using finely-ground seeds, (from certain plants of the cabbage family). A knife which wasn't sufficiently sharp to grind the seeds finely enough couldn't "cut the mustard".

Following on from this, one school of thought discounts the "muster" phrase as the origin of "cut the mustard" for two reasons:

  • To "cut the muster" in military termswould mean to fail to attend the muster - definitely poor behaviour. The sense of the phrase is contrary to the accepted definition of "excellence" or "of a satisfactory standard".
  • There is no record of the phrase "cut the muster" ever being used in any context other than as a possible explanation for the phrase "cut the mustard"!
On the other hand: In defence of the "muster" argument, the related phrase "doesn't quite cut it" is sometimes used to refer to something below-standard or unacceptable: "Tommy's suggestion that spontaneous combustion caused the cat's tail to catch fire didn't quite cut it with his father"

Perhaps we'll never get to the bottom of this phrase's etymology!

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