“My boyfriend is coming to Thanksgiving dinner. I hope he can pass the mustard with my family.”

How many families actually have mustard on their Thanksgiving tables is something I don’t know, but most people don’t find passing it much of a challenge if it’s there. I pictured a boyfriend so weak or so clueless that his girlfriend had to view such tasks as fraught with risk…why did she find him attractive?

Well, enough of that. She meant pass muster with (be found satisfactory by) the folks. Probably never having lined up for military inspection or gathered for drill herself, she didn’t process the word “muster” when she first heard the phrase, and in walked “mustard” to do the job.

Of course she might have meant cut the mustard (do the job satisfactorily, perform up to certain standards of excellence). That phrase, according to most sources, has been in American usage since at least 1897. Tracking down its origins has defeated researchers, though, leaving only theories to explain the notion behind the words. I have always imagined a small pile of ground mustard and a cook meticulously wielding a tiny knife to separate out the amount necessary to season a gourmet dish. Some who have actually thought about it propose that cutting the mustard would be difficult if one were trying to cleave one of those tiny, hard seeds with a knife; others say that since the mustard plant is dense and grows close to the ground, harvesting it can present a challenge; still others say cutting, meaning “diluting,” ground mustard with vinegar makes it palatable in salads; and a few say that “cut” is used here in the same way it’s used in “cut a fine figure,” and so the phrase means “display strength or spirit,” since “mustard” by itself has been a metaphor for vigor or spiciness for at least four hundred years.

And some suggest that “cut the mustard” may have developed from a mishearing or misunderstanding of “pass muster.” So my student isn’t alone in her confusion.

We might speculate further and offer the phrase “pass the mustard” to future generations who know neither musters nor mustard-cutting. “Pass the mustard” could be a metaphor for “display good manners,” as in handing over the yellow jar without needing to be asked twice. That would save our boyfriend from all charges of wimpiness or weakness or cluelessness, and our writer from any suggestion that where writing is concerned she doesn’t always pass muster or cut the mustard.

I’m looking forward to my usual awesome Thanksgiving with family and other loved ones, including a few new additions, tomorrow, and I wish the same to you. If you find mustard on your table, please remember to pass it with all courtesy; if you find none, then try to display a spicy presence. May our pies and stuffing pass muster with even the most fussy of critics, and may we all extend the generosity of heart that asks no one to be anything but himself or herself in order to pass muster with us.

This mustard has been harvested and ground. Can you cut it?

A colonial muster. Will they pass?

He seems to be passing the mustard very nicely.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

3 responses to ““My boyfriend is coming to Thanksgiving dinner. I hope he can pass the mustard with my family.”

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