Dinner parties with a crowd you don’t know well can be complicated. Sometimes, you need to dress and act appropriately, and sometimes, you need to give your neighbor the appropriate condiment.
So next time you’re worried about whether the expression is “to pass muster” or “to pass mustard,” remember:
- To “pass muster” is the correct phrase if you’re referring to gaining approval, meeting a certain level of acceptance, or being considered satisfactory. “Muster” in this case refers to an inspection or review that a soldier might go through. Therefore, to “pass muster” means that everything is ship-shape and how it should be. This phrase was taken out of military usage and into everyday speech in the 16th century. Note, it’s not “to pass the muster,” but simply “to pass muster.”
- “To pass mustard” means that someone would like to add some extra flavor to their meal and perhaps you’re being asked to send it their way. Some prefer Dijon; others prefer brown spicy. Hot mustard might come with your Chinese take-out, and the yellow variety is ever-popular at ball parks.
And while we’re talking about muster/mustard confusion, let’s talk about another big question:
Would you say someone doesn’t “cut the muster” or that they don’t “cut the mustard”?
Are we returning to that muster inspection, or does that condiment finally have its moment in the idiomatic sun?
The good news is that you could argue there’s some fairness here.
- If someone doesn’t “cut the mustard,” that means that they are not doing as well as they could. They are not the model of success. It’s most often used in this negative form, and it’s been recorded since at least the 1890s. Where this expression comes from is a bit of a mystery, but it doesn’t seem to be about physically cutting mustard plants. It might have something to do with lessening the spice of mustard by cutting the portions of the recipe, but that’s not a widely accepted etymology either. If you ask me, those researching this question might not be cutting the mustard, but so far, I can’t find anything more conclusive.
- If someone doesn’t “cut the muster,” on the other hand, that might mean that they didn’t cut, as in skip, their inspection, but this probably isn’t what you’re looking for.
“To pass muster” is correct.
“To cut the mustard” is correct.
All other forms are just a bit muddled.
So, yes, if someone doesn’t cut the mustard, they probably won’t pass muster. Is this confusing? Yep. Do you have a craving for a Bavarian pretzel and a side with some spice? Maybe. There’s my suggestion for your next dinner party. Just know when to pass it, when to cut it, and when it’s time to ask the nearest Rolls-Royce for the Grey Poupon.
Join 775+ subscribers and sign-up for my writing and editing email newsletter for more language tips and trivia like this.