Cut the Mustard: Origin and Meaning
The first documented appearance of this expression dates back to 1907 in a story by
O. Henry called The heart of the West:
“I looked around and found a proposition that exactly cut the mustard”.
What the writer meant by this was that he was looking for something that was genuinely good, that was exactly what he needed and that could be handled and managed well for him to make a lot of money.
Therefore, at the turn of the last century, cutting the mustard meant the genuine article, something of high/good quality or something suitable.
To cut the mustard could also be used to describe a person who has the energy and fervour to handle a particular job, i.e. the right person for the job.
If we look at each of the words individually, the verb “to cut” can collocate with different nouns to form idiomatic expressions, and one particular combination is relevant in our case as to cut a fine figure means to exhibit or show.
Mustard, on the other hand, is famous for its sharp, peppery taste and it, therefore, could provide a link between the hot and spicy characteristics of mustard seeds with the zest and energy of people’s behaviour. Hence, to cut the mustard can also describe personal characteristics and is generally used to describe somebody who is up to scratch, fit for the job, or not.
– This report doesn’t cut the mustard at all. It’s incomplete and full of errors. You’ll need to resubmit it!
– Do you think she can cut the mustard as a model?