Cut the Mustard Update:
The idiom, “to cut the mustard,” meaning, “to do what is required; prove satisfactory,”[i] first emerged in the context of Midwestern political debates in the late-1880s. Most of the early appearances of the phrase appeared in the swathe of land in the Midwestern United States that had been ravaged by several plagues of “grasshoppers” (Rocky Mountain Locusts) in the mid-1870s. The coincidence that the idiom came from grasshopper-plagued regions might otherwise have been unremarkable; but for the reports of botched relief efforts that unintentionally created a plague of mustard weed.
In the aftermath of the “grasshopper” plagues, the relief efforts included shipments of replacement seeds, to make up for seeds devoured by the locusts. Some of those shipments reportedly contained unacceptable levels of mustard seed. The excessive levels of mustard seed were said to have led to excessive numbers of mustard weed, which displaced, or choked out, the more desirable cash crops.
To limit the damage caused by the mustard, it is necessary to “cut the mustard” early, and often, to prevent it from maturing and going to seed, which would spawn new generations of mustard. But simply cutting once will not eradicate the problem, since mustard seeds can lay dormant in the ground for up to twenty years before sprouting. It is therefore necessary to cut the mustard every year, sometimes more than once a season, to combat new mustard growth. Since mustard plants on neighboring land can also go to seed, thereby endangering crops, non-farmers had to cut the mustard too. Government officials had to ensure that the mustard was cut on public land, and along the public roadways.
The literal act of regularly cutting the mustard seems to have become a standard of efficient and effective management or governance, and may have inspired the idiom, “to cut the mustard.” Although the evidence does not unambiguously prove that the “grasshopper” relief seeds caused the same problem throughout the plague areas, it is interesting that the idiom originated and spread throughout much of that range before becoming well known to the rest of the country.
You can read about the grasshopper plagues, the relief efforts, and some of the early appearances of, “cut the mustard,” in my earlier post, the History and Etymology of “Cut the Mustard” – Locusts, Bad Seeds, Invasive Species and Politics. When I wrote that piece, the earliest, idiomatic use of “cut the mustard” that I had found was from November 1889. Since posting the article, however, I have discovered several earlier uses of the idiom. Those uses were also from in or near the “grasshopper” plague zone, and are also, for the most part, related to politics.
The idiom, “to cut the mustard,” appeared several times, in at least two newspapers in Missouri, before November 1889. Of the approximately ten references that I have found, eight are from the Butler (Missouri) Weekly Democrat. Butler Missouri lies about fifteen miles east of the Kansas border, and about sixty miles south of Kansas City, Missouri. The two other references are from 200 miles east, in Mexico, Missouri.
The earliest reference, from April, 1886, hints at the name of someone who may be responsible for coining the idiom, or at least first popularizing the idiom in cut-the-mustard ground-zero:
“Can’t cut the mustard,” is what our good brother Wade of the Butler Democrat calls getting left on a post office. This jargon of a political juggler shall not divert our attention from the main issue which is, that Wade’s days as a boss in Bates are numbered, and we will wager him a ton of Henry county coal against a half dozen lots in Walnut and three or four of his last year’s railroads, that he “can’t deliver the goods,” either directly or indirectly, and that when he undertakes to use the democracy of Bates to pay his personal obligations, that he will be repudiated by a large majority. – Henry Co. Democrat.
The Butler Weekly Times (Butler, Missouri), April 7, 1886, page 4, column 2.
The paper revisited the Wade issue a few months later:
The readers of the Times will remember Wade held a midnight consultation in Nevada some time ago with W. J. Stone and his backers and in consideration of the gift of the Butler post office promised to deliver, without the loss of a township, Bates county. Well, in the language of the western poet, ‘he failed to cut the mustard,’ and now he is as mad as a wet hen, and threatens dire vengeance.
The Butler Weekly Times (Butler, Missouri), August 25, 1886, page 5, column 2.
N. A. Wade, the editor of the Butler Weekly Times’ rival democratic newspaper, the Butler Democrat, was locally, politically active. He served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1876, served as the postmaster during President Cleveland’s first term (1885-1889), and later served as oil and coal inspector. These two early “cut the mustard” references, and several other articles from the same period, paint a picture of Wade as a sort-of local, political kingmaker, mover and shaker.
|The Old Settlers' History of Bates County, Missouri pp. 70-71|
Wade is said to have arranged his appointment to postmaster, over a rival newspaper man J. D. Allen of The Herald, by promising to deliver votes in favor of some candidate for some office. But he later said that the appointment “can’t cut the mustard.” It is unclear whether he felt that the appointment didn’t “cut the mustard” because he deserved more, or whether it didn’t cut the mustard because he couldn’t deliver the votes he promised. If you can sift through the mid-1880s politics of Bates County, Kansas, you are a better man than I am.
The writer of the article referred to Wade’s comments as, the “jargon of a political juggler;” and the writer of the follow-up article called the phrase, “the language of the western poet.” It is not clear how novel the expression was in April of 1886. Did Wade coin the expression, or did he use a known expression to describe the situation? Was Wade (a newspaper editor and writer himself) the “western poet”? If not, is the “western poet” refer to a particular writer? – or does it merely reflect an awareness that “cut the mustard” was a poetic figure of speech used in the West?
Since Wade reportedly used the expression, it seems likely that it would have appeared in one of his newspapers, the Bates County Democrat or the Butler Democrat. Archives of either one of those papers might hold some clues. But the Library of Congress’ online records suggest that there are no known archives available for those papers covering the late 1880s or early 1890s. Perhaps other newspapers from the region might hold further clues.
But even if the expression was coined in or around Butler, the expression was not confined to Butler for long. “Cut the mustard” appeared two hundred miles to the east, in Mexico, Missouri, just two weeks after its first appearance in Butler; suggesting, perhaps that the expression may already have been known throughout the region:
Ned Taylor was blooding in Wellsville Sunday. He reports a jolly time and says he succeeded in “cutting the mustard.”
Mexico Weekly Ledger, April 22, 1886, page 2.
And no, I have no earthly idea what “blooding in Wellsville” means. Ned Taylor, however, was a local character, and clerk at the Windsor Hotel.
During the ensuing years, “cut the mustard” appeared on at least six more occasions in the Bates Weekly Times, and at least once more in the Mexico Weekly Ledger, before it appeared in the Barton County Democrat, in Great Bend, Kansas, November 7, 1889. Except for Ned Taylor’s successful “blooding” expedition, and Charlie Lewis’ Restaurant . . .
. . . all of the early appearances of “cut the mustard” relate to politics.
Whatever the initial impetus to coin the expression, the idiom grew like mustard weed – that still hasn’t been cut:
Albert Badgley may be a little slow but he “cut the mustard” all the same.
The Butler Weekly Times (Butler, Missouri), April 14, 1886, page 8, column 3.
Tilden H. Smith has embarked in the newspaper business at West Fallbrook, San Diego county, California. We are glad to learn that Til. Has abandoned his old profession (the law) and gone into a money making business and honorable calling. Here is our [finger pointing], old boy, and long may you live and great may you “cut the mustard.”
The Butler Weekly Times (Butler, Missouri), October 26, 1887, page 5, column 2.
Bro. Aus. We rise to remark, Newsome respectfully cut the mustard.
The Butler Weekly Times (Butler, Missouri), April 11, 1888, page 5, column 1.
There is some talk among the anti-Francis men, who find that Morehouse can’t “cut the mustard,” of running Judge Norton for Governor. Too late, boys; Francis has the pole in the race.
Mexico Weekly Ledger (Mexico, Missouri), July 5, 1888, page 2, column 1.
C. B. Lewis, the indomitable Charley, “cut the mustard” in fine shape as he said he would and will do the same thing at the general election.
The Butler Weekly Times (Butler, Missouri), March 13, 1889, page 4, column 2.
It’s a cold day when Charlie gets left or fails to respectfully “cut the mustard.”
The Butler Weekly Times (Butler, Missouri), June 26, 1889, page 9, column 5.
See my earlier piece: History and Etymology of “Cut the Mustard” – Locusts, Bad Seeds, Invasive Species and Politics.