Monday, May 5, 2014

History and Etymology of "Cut the Mustard" - Locusts, Bad Seeds, Invasive Species and Politics

A Plague of Locusts; Bad Seeds;

Invasive Species; and Politics:

The History and Etymology of “Cut the Mustard”

 Cut the Mustard in Pop-Culture:

The idiom, “to cut the mustard,” holds a modest position in pop-culture.  It inspired Bill Carlisle to pen a hokey country song about ED entitled, Too Old to Cut the Mustard.  The song was recorded by Ernest Tubbs (the artist who introduced the Christmas classic, Blue Christmas, before Elvis Presley) and Red Foley in 1951, although the a clip of Bill Carlisle singing his own song on the Porter Waggoner Show is arguably more entertaining.  The Revolutionary Blues Band released a decidedly funkier, Cutting the Mustard, in 1970.  But where did the phrase come from?

The idiom is known to have emerged in the United States in the late nineteenth century, but the underlying, original meaning of the phrase has not been fully understood.  Various explanations have been suggested, including the chore of cutting mustard plants, the difficulty of cutting mustard plants, diluting (cutting) prepared mustard condiments to achieve the proper flavor, or a derivation from the slang use of the word mustard to mean the thing that gives flavor.  Although each of the explanations, standing alone, sounds plausible, the evidence, or lack thereof, to support one meaning over another has just not “cut the mustard.”

A thorough review of recently uncovered, early uses of the phrase in print, however, suggests that the idiom alludes to being diligent in the regular cutting of mustard plants in an effort to limit crop losses due to the plant.  The idiom also appears to have been borne of a natural disaster of biblical proportions. 

It was Moses (now, I’m paraphrasing here), who sent a plague of locusts down on Egypt because Pharaoh did not “cut the mustard.”  But, in a little-known, ironic twist, it may have been a plague of locusts, hail and a drought that provided the impetus for the creation of the idiom, “cut the mustard.” 

Grasshopper Plague - 1874 (most-affected areas in green)
The idiom first appeared in Kansas in 1889, and most of the early examples of its use come from nearby Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri.  The location and timing of the development of the idiom, however, does not seem to have been mere happenstance; the seeds of the idiom, actual mustard seeds, had been inadvertently planted about fifteen years earlier, during recovery from the “grasshopper” plagues of 1874 and 1876.  

[Since posting this article, I have found several earlier uses - all from Missouri.  See my "Cut the Mustard Update.]

The Phrase:

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang defines “cut [the] mustard” as meaning, “to do what is required; prove satisfactory.”  It lists an early use of the phrase from O. Henry’s, Heart of the West (1904):

By nature and doctrines I am addicted to the habit of discovering choice places wherein to feed.  So I looked around and found a proposition that exactly cut the mustard.  I found a restaurant tent just opened up by an outfit that had drifted in on the tail of the boom.

The Phrase Finder ( offers an even earlier citation, from Iowa; “Dubuque had the crowds, but Waterloo “Cut the Mustard.” The Iowa State Reporter, August 1897.  A thread on the online language usage forum,, comments on and supplements the earlier Phrase Finder posting.  Posts on the thread speculate about a possible railroading origin for the phrase, based on an 1898 letter in Railroad Trainman magazine (“if [a ‘gafter’] . . . could not ‘cut the mustard’ he was liable to ‘hit the grit’ between stations”) and an 1892 news item about a dance hosted by the International Association of Machinists at the Depot Hotel in Sumner, California (now East Bakersfield).  Other posts on the thread discuss the fact that mustard plants were an undesirable weed and asserted that railroads were required, by law, to remove mustard from their lands to prevent it from spreading to surrounding farmland.  The online etymology dictionary,, speculates that the phrase is “probably” derived from the slang word, “mustard,” meaning “that which enhances flavor.”

New evidence that I have identified supports the mustard-as--weed theory, but not limited to railroads.  Mustard was an undesirable weed that choked farmland from Minnesota to Oklahoma.  To the extent that the railroads also cut mustard, it was primarily to prevent the plants from going to seed, and further threatening crops, as well as, perhaps, to keep their right-of-ways clear.  Although mustard plants can harm crops anywhere, they cause particular harm in the Great Plains region of the United States when mustard seeds were inadvertently introduced from mustard seed-contaminated seed shipments from the East that were sent to replenish seed stocks in the aftermath of devastating crop losses following the “grasshopper” plagues of the mid-1870s.

The Grasshopper Plagues:

Grasshopper Plague - 1876 (most-affected areas in green)
In 1874 and 1876, grasshoppers (more precisely, Rocky Mountain Locusts) descended on the plains, borne by the wind, and eating everything in their path.  They swept through a corridor extending from Denver in the west and Des Moines in the east and Lake Winnipeg in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south.  The hardest-hit region covered southwestern Minnesota, western Iowa, southeastern Nebraska, eastern Kansas, western Missouri and extreme northeast Oklahoma.  Coincidentally, or maybe not, fifteen of the nineteen earliest known newspaper citations of the idiom, “cut the mustard”, are from eight different publications, all located in grasshopper ground-zero; Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

From, Riley, C. V., The Locust Plague in the United States (1877).
Perhaps the best-known, first-person account of the grasshopper plague can be found in, “the Glittering Cloud,” a chapter of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book, On the Banks of Plum Creek.  She had experienced the plague as a child when her family lived in southwestern Minnesota, where her family moved after leaving their little house on the prairie in Kansas, the setting of her best-known book.  Paradoxically, the long-running TV series, Little House on the Prairie, took place in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, located near Plum Creek, site of the grasshopper invasion, and not the prairies of Kansas where the book of that name took place.

The grasshopper plague was so widespread, pervasive and persistent that county-by-county agricultural reports included grasshopper reports, along with the routine weather, crop and harvest information.  For example, on July 27, 1874, Nobles County, in extreme southwestern Minnesota, reported:

The grasshoppers have done almost all our harvesting in this vicinity.  We had them here in clouds up to a few days ago, when they disappeared, and none are visible either on the ground or flying now . . . .

Stevens County, in western Minnesota, reported:

Harvest has not commenced.  The first of the week everything promised fair for an abundant harvest, but he grasshoppers have come by the million and every field is alive with them; and they are destroying the grain with a wonderful, rapidity.

Further east, Sherburne County reported:

Crops good. No grasshoppers. Farmers are harvesting their winter grain now.

The Grange Advance (Red Wing, Minnesota), July 22, 1874.

Many farmers lost their entire crop to grasshoppers, as well as to hail storms and drought.  And the devastation continued when the grasshoppers returned in 1876.  Many farmers lost their entire crops and were left without enough seeds to plant the following season.  Since the region, as a whole, was seed-poor, many of the replacement seeds were shipped in from the East.  The seeds were supplied, in part, with the help of Congressional aid appropriations in 1875 and 1877, as well as donations from private relief organizations.

Cutting the Mustard; Literally:

In an unintended result that goes to prove the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished, twenty years after the grasshopper plagues, the Minneapolis (Minnesota) Journal reported that:

Some nineteen or twenty years ago there was a failure of crops on account of hail and grasshoppers for two or three successive years, until there was no seed in the country.  All the seed grain used the following spring along the Omaha road and the whole surrounding country was shipped in from the East by one company.  This seed contained mustard.  From that time until now it has grown worse and worse.

The Sun (New York) July 5, 1896 (reprinted from the Minneapolis Journal).  

The resulting mustard infestation persisted, year-after-year.  Mustard seed, it turns out, can lie in the ground for up to twenty years without sprouting; so farmers in 1896 were still dealing with mustard grown from mustard seeds that had arrived years earlier, as well as any new seeds from mustard that may have matured to seed in the interim.

Further exacerbating the problem, individual mustard seeds could sprout and grow at anytime throughout the growing season, necessitating frequent, regular mustard cutting:  

[Mustard] [p]lants that are seeding this year, if cut at this time will give no further trouble, provided the seed is not matured.  All mustard seeds possess great vitality, and may under similar circumstances remain in the ground a number of years without germinating.  This makes it all the more troublesome to rid the soil of these pests, and one should not be discouraged if he does not succeed in one year.  Provided, however, the plants are pulled or cut before ripening, he will soon reap the benefits of his labor.  There is no royal road to the destruction of these pests.  If the plants are near maturity at the time of pulling or cutting they should be destroyed by fire before the seeds shell from the pods.
Jamestown Weekly Alert (Jamestown, Dakota Territory), June 25, 1891.

Iowa State University described methods for eradicating mustard:

In these plants it is important to destroy the plants before the seeds have formed.  This can be done by pulling the young plants up.  This is not always an easy matter, as it may mean the loss of a good many plants of oats, flax or wheat.  Still, it is better to suffer a little loss in this direction, than to have all of the mustard plants mature seed. . . . Mustards of vacant lots or streets must be removed and this can be done by cutting the young plants off in June and July, and repeating later in the season.
Bulletin, Iowa State College, Experiment Station, Botanical Section, Bulletin 70 (December, 1903), page 356.

Cutting mustard regularly became a way of life for many people.  Farmers were affected by the weed; “the farmer who has been taught to fear the mustard plant has a just fear. . . .  The fields of grain seem to be buried beneath overtowering growths of mustard.”  Railroads were also affected; “railway tracks, wagon roads, and barnyards are alike visited by this weed.”  Politicians had to deal with mustard, because, “[t]he mustard on public highways is mown down while green.” The Sun, July 5, 1896.  To succeed or get the work done in farming, business, and politics, you had to ensure that the mustard was cut early, and often.

Cutting the Mustard; Figuratively:

In time, the regular and ubiquitous chore of regularly cutting the mustard apparently developed into the gold-standard of taking care of business, getting the job done, doing what it takes to achieve success.  Interestingly, the ten of the eleven earliest appearances of “cut the mustard” in print that I could find (the 1892 dance in East Bakersfield being the only exception) all relate to politics.

[UPDATE: Since posting this article, I have found a few even earlier examples of use - all from Missouri.  See my "Cut the Mustard" Update".]

Two days after election-day in 1889 (November 7, 1889), victories by democratic and independent candidates, which proved that the “old republican bosses have indeed petered out,” prompted the Barton County Democrat (Great Bend, Kansas) newspaper to crow: 

Barton County Democrat (Great Bend, Kansas), November 7, 1889

We’re Not Angels --- We’re Democrats

Mud Slinging Don’t Win, But Honest, Efficient Offi-
cers and a Clean Capaign [(sic)] Cuts the Mustard.

. . . Townsley disposed of all his “hand-me-down” affidavits to the republicans, but they “couldn’t cut the mustard.”

The “efficient” democratic officers who ran a “clean campaign” “cut the mustard” and won.  The republicans, on the other hand, “couldn’t cut the mustard,” and lost.  The democrats were able to get the job done in the campaign, whereas the democrats did not get the job done.  In other words, the democrats succeeded, did what was required, and reaped the benefits of their labor, just as a person who cuts mustard diligently reaps the benefit of their labor.

I can imagine that the cut-the-mustard allusion may have had multiple possible meanings.  To cut the mustard was to do a necessary part of doing business well and diligently.  Cutting the mustard could be understood as getting rid of undesirable obstacles, or cleaning house.  In this first appearance of the phrase, it is used in contrast to campaign mud-slinging; “honest, efficient officers and a clean campaign cuts the mustard.”  In any case, cutting the mustard appears to allude to cutting mustard plants regularly and diligently to get the job done.

Some of the references even seem to play off of the cutting or mowing imagery of the phrase, although it is impossible to determine, based on these examples alone, whether physical cutting of mustard prompted the allusion, or whether the phrase, once established, naturally lent itself to the cutting allusion.  But, it might be telling that several early uses of the idiom explicitly draw the analogy to cutting or mowing:

  The ticket-makers are in a row,
Coxey keep off the grass;
  You cannot cut the mustard now,
Coxey keep off the grass.
The Weekly Dawn (Ellensburg, Washington), September 8, 1894 (a political poem);

The Republican machine is greatly in need of new blades.  It fails to cut the 
The Guthrie Daily Leader (Guthrie, Oklahoma), April 6, 1897.

Other early politics-related uses include:

The scheme won’t work.  John J. can’t cut the mustard, and the People’s state printer will be elected in spite to the senate.
Kansas Agitator (Garnett, Kansas), January 4, 1891; in a rhyming article about senate candidates:

Jake cannot “cut the mustard,” the Bosse boom is “busted,”
Barton County Democrat, October 29, 1891;

King Jim saw that he “could not cut the mustard” and made an heroic effort to switch his forces to McKinley; but the coming campaign could not e run without “fat,” so grandfather’s hat was again honored by the nomination.
Barton County Democrat, June 16, 1892; in an article about a committee selecting delegates:

That made Eller storm, and he shook portions of law books out of his whiskers in paragraphs, sections and even chapters, but unlike the wrath of the righteous man, it failed to cut the mustard.
Omaha (Nebraska) Daily Bee, August 2, 1892;

He wanted to be appointed deputy internal revenue collector under Jim North, and since he failed to “cut the mustard” he has been “agin the guv’ment.”
Omaha Daily Bee, June 21, 1894.

The earliest non-political reference that I could find (other than the East Bakersfield dance of 1892) related to a horse race:

Badge drew the pole and began to cut the mustard immediately on leaving 
the wire.
Omaha Daily Bee, June 13, 1897.

Supporting Evidence:

I acknowledge that my “evidence” of a correlation between the grasshopper plagues of the 1870s and the origin of the idiom, “cut the mustard,” is not iron-clad.  It is possible that the phrase originated in those agricultural regions because that is where mustard could be a problem, even without special circumstances compounding the problem.  One big-city newspaper called the phrase a, "rural phrase of pleasant origin." The Evening Star (Washington DC), December 18, 1897.  Mustard must have been a problem at least to some degree in other regions as well.  It must have been somewhat of a problem out East where the replacement seeds are said to have been shipped from.  It also affected wheat farmers in California where it was said that Chinese immigrants turned a profit separating mustard seed from wheat seed. Iola (Kansas) Register, February 4, 1887.  

But other, independent reports support the grasshopper connection or at least corroborate elements of the story, making it seem plausible, if not likely.  A report from 1874 describes the replacement seeds as, “comparatively worthless,” but without explanation. The Grange Advance (Red Wing, Minnesota), November 18, 1874.  But clearly, seeds were needed and replacements were shipped in from outside the region.  An item in the Emporia (Kansas) News (May 7, 1875), mentioned a man who, in a gimmick worthy of a modern-day, morning DJ, “packed a box full of young grasshoppers, labeled it ‘Kansas seeds,’ and sent it by express, not prepaid, to the commissioner of agriculture at Washington.”  Congress appropriated $300,000 for replacement seeds in 1875 (The Grange Advance, January 26, 1875) and $20,000 in 1877 (Lincoln County Advocate (Canton, Dakota Territory), March 28, 1877).  It is easy to imagine some politically-connected seed company low-balling a government contract and then cutting corners in selecting seeds to be sent under the contract.  The 1896 article from the Minneapolis Tribune (reprinted in The Sun), in which the mustard problem of the 1890s is blamed, at least in part, on the replacement seeds in the 1870s, suggests that this may well have been the case.

A report of a mustard infestation in Washington State in 1903 describes a similar pattern of an invasive mustard plant being introduced in grain shipments from the east:

Yellow mustard is becoming the most feared weed that infests the Eureka Flat country.  All along the tracks of the Washington & Columbia River railway, and especially in the vicinity of Lee, the weed has spread till it is a real menace. . . . .  Mr. Hoffman said three years ago there was not a stalk of yellow mustard on the flat.  Today the fields along the railway are spotted with it.  He believes the seed was scattered along the railway track from cars from the east. . . . .  At Lee the spaces along the tracks are so densely covered with yellow mustard that it impedes walking, and farmers point to this as the possible condition of the fields if steps are not taken to destroy the weeds.
The Colfax (Washington) Gazette, July 31, 1903.  

The earliest academic treatment of the phrase also strengthens the tie between the idiom and the grasshopper-stricken areas from the mid-1870s grasshopper plagues.  The journal, Dialect Notes (Volume 3, Part 1 (1905), page 76) lists, “cut the mustard” in a list of words from Northwest Arkansas.  Northwest Arkansas lies within the region that was most affected by grasshopper plague of 1877 (Riley, The Locust Plague, Plate III) and just outside the edges of the most-affected areas in the grasshopper plague of 1875 (Riley, The Locust Plague, Plate II).  Dialect Notes also included “cut the mustard” in a list of words from Kansas in 1913.


 “Cut the mustard” originated in those areas that were hardest hit by the grasshopper plagues of the mid-1870s.  Contemporary reports about replacement seeds and mustard suggest that cutting mustard was particularly important and time-consuming in those areas.  Of course, it is also possible that the idiom might have arisen in those same areas even without the extra mustard.  But, the geographic coincidence of the hardest hit plague zone and the origins of the phrase strongly suggest that cutting mustard was particularly burdensome in those regions due to unintended consequences of the grasshopper-plague relief efforts.

Those tainted replacement seed shipments seem to have caused one further, unintended consequence; they enriched our language with one more colorful (mustard yellow) idiom.

The phrase survived because it, “cuts the mustard.”

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