Samui Wining & Dining
Cutting the Mustard

A look at some food-related sayings and how they came about.


24You lot out there probably think that it’s as easy as pie to write stuff like this – a piece of cake, in fact. It’s a nice little gravy train for us food writers. But hold on! I tell you we have to know our onions! For us to be worth our salt, we need to be able to cut the mustard! Because if we make a cock-up then we’ll really be in a pickle and end up having to eat humble pie!

If you weren’t entirely sure quite what this story was going to be about, then now you know! The English language has been evolving and changing for well over a thousand years. It’s a mixture of Anglo-Saxon (itself of Germanic origin), Greek, Latin, a touch of Norse, French and, much later, a smattering of ‘lingo’ absorbed from all over the world as ‘The British Empire’ eventually spread to cover one quarter of our planet.

But nearly all common expressions and idioms, such the ones above, have much more recent origins, although there are still a few with biblical roots. Some can trace their provenance to the writings of William Shakespeare. Many stem from the tradition and ritual of the British Army and the Royal Navy. But the majority came about because of the huge gap between the rich and the poor. Until the effects of the Industrial Revolution had blurred the boundaries between aristocrats and peasants, the ‘common people’ and the language they used was full of oblique references to ‘us’ and ‘them’. And many of the expressions we unthinkingly use today reflect the habits and traditions of the lords and ladies of times gone by.

But let’s start with this story’s title, ‘cutting the mustard’ – meaning ‘to be competent or proficient’. There are some that argue that the expression originated from the practice of diluting (as in ‘cutting’) culinary mustard with vinegar. But the more-likely explanation refers to the Armed Forces’ ‘call to muster’. If you didn’t assemble at your station with your uniform and equipment immaculately presented then you were punished. You hadn’t ‘cut’ a fine figure on parade. You hadn’t been able to ‘cut the muster’.

A similar expression, ‘to be worth your salt’, also has military origins but is far more ancient. Our word ‘salary’ comes from the Latin salarium, meaning ‘salt’. For a long period of time Roman soldiers, particularly mercenaries, were paid in salt; at that time it was a kind of universal currency. Either way, the meaning is clear – doing your job well enough to justify the ‘salary’ you are paid.

To ‘know your onions’ sounds a bit similar but it has no connection with root vegetables at all! The English grammarian and lexicographer, Charles Talbut Onions, was the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1925 until 1933. His name became synonymous with this definitive icon of the English language; hence ‘to know your Onions’ initially indicated that you were well-read and ‘wordy’. Over the years it took on the broader meaning of to be an expert of any kind, and the original name of Mr. Onions degraded as it moved into common usage.

Contrary to some transatlantic lines of thought, ‘making a cock-up’ of something is not a vulgar expression (nor has it any connection with barnyard fowls!). And with this one you can take your pick, as nobody quite knows how it came about! Plausible explanations are that: a) breweries marked sub-standard barrels of ale by turning their taps (called ‘cocks’) upwards so they couldn’t be used; b) military muskets were likely to fire if they were accidentally ‘cocked’ when they were raised in salute; c) it’s a nautical expression for the disaster that results when raising the ‘cock’ sail too high on a sailing ship. Whatever the actual truth may be, all these suggestions make it clear that this is not a situation that one deliberately seeks to achieve!

Let’s take a look at the class divide and how the lowly servants differed from the upper crust of society. This expression gained popular use in the 19th century and the origins lie in the primitive kitchens of the time. Loaves of bread were burned black on the bottom but the top half was fine. And it was this ‘upper crust’ that went to the master of the house, leaving the blackened remnants for his servants.

To ‘eat humble pie’ has similar roots. Meaning to ‘act apologetically, especially in the face of an error’, we have to look once again to the Lord of the Manor and his servants. The ‘umbles’ was the name given to the waste parts of an animal, usually a deer that had been hunted and killed. Traditionally the servants were given a small portion of the prime meat as a gratuity. But if any of them failed in their duties they were only fed the umbles, and thus they atoned for their errors by having to eat ‘umble pie’ all week.

But not all ‘food sayings’ are the result of centuries of gradual absorption into the language. Many have emerged from Australia or America, and only comparatively recently, too. The worthless promise of ‘pie in the sky’ became a well-known expression thanks to the Australian, Joe Hill, who in 1911 wrote a popular song that sarcastically criticised the ‘ineffectual promises’ of The Salvation Army. In a parody of one of their hymns, he wrote, “Work and pray/Live on hay/You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

And it was the American humorist, Ogden Nash, who was responsible for coining the expression, ‘it’s a piece of cake’, as recently as 1938. In his widely-read poem on the effects of fame and fortune, ‘The Primrose Path’, one line read, “Her picture’s in the papers now and life’s a piece of cake.” And from that idly-passing thought emerged the expression that has since come to represent ‘an easy life, thoughtless or undeserved well-being or success’, in English-speaking countries all over the world.

There! I bet you were so interested in all this that it led you onwards like a lamb to the slaughter. It’s been enjoyable chewing the fat like this and it has no doubt warmed the cockles of your (literary) heart. But my time is up and I have to go so it’s no use crying over spilled milk. I’ll be back again soon; so until then stay cool – as cool as a cucumber, in fact!


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