Column: ‘Up to snuff’ on the odd sayings of the English language
I have my age-old fondness for where our English language comes from. In the process, I myself have become age-old. Our language is old, so the fact that I am older too seems to be a sort of comfort.
It’s not, then, that I have become too old to cut the mustard. The only possible reaction of a healthy male, regardless of age, is denial. But the phrase about cutting the mustard must mean something, be based on something, especially if I haven’t become too old to do it.
It may originally come from a military word called “muster,” which means showing up each and every day for formation. I remember those days in Fort Bliss, Texas, in February, during army basic training, stiff, sore, ailing from the previous day’s torture. Those were early mornings, when showing up for muster had some genuine doubts associated with it. I remember a couple of cold, snowy mornings when I could barely stand up straight. It would be easy to see how one could finally become too old to cut the muster (mustard) anymore.
Or it may mean that since mustard has “zip” and “zing,” and “cutting” means acting out, then cutting the mustard may just mean acting in an energetic manner. Which I can still do. Once. I can be up to snuff once.
Which leaves the phrase “up to snuff” left to figure out. Maybe if you’re too old to cut the mustard, you’re not up to snuff. This phrase dates back to the late 18th century, when using snuff tobacco first became popular in England, mostly in the upper classes of that society.
Only the wealthy had the financial ability to buy a tobacco that was sniffed up the nose, a tobacco which they kept in gold or silver or jeweled snuff boxes. Hence, you were “up to snuff” if you were as wealthy as this slice of society.
I recently came across a couple of interesting word definitions while reading a book called “Cooked,” by Michael Pollan. This book is about diet and cooking and food we eat now and used to eat and a whole bunch of other stuff. In this book, he talks about the miracle of corn, which is a grass that mutated from a plant that had its small grain up on top of a thin stalk, to one that had large grain halfway up the thick stalk.
“Corn” originally meant the same as the word “grain,” as in a grain of sand, which used to be a “corn” of sand, or a corn of grain, or a small piece of anything, even a corn of salt. Which now explains where “corned” beef comes from. I always wondered, since corn was never around beef. It really means salted beef. Now you know.
Then he pointed out how many uses an ear of corn had. You could eat the kernels, in one of several ways, and then use the ear shuck for a mattress, and the cob itself for heat in your stove.
Even better, since this was before toilet paper was invented, corn cobs were quite handy in the outhouse, where they could be used for, well, you know. After they were used for “well, you know,” they were thrown down the hole. Hence the term “corn hole,” a place where cobs went.
(For those people responsible, you should have known better than to name a game where you throw a bag of corn kernels through a hole in a board “Corn Hole.” My apologies to the English language.)
For those of you who are too young to know what’s what, there were some things that worked much better in the outhouse, things much better than corn cobs, like, for example, peach wrappers. We always looked forward to Ma canning peaches in the fall. Each peach came wrapped in a nice, soft paper. Great stuff, much better than the slick pages of a Sears,
Roebuck catalogue. Or a corn cob.
Thank you, Thomas Crapper, an 1830s plumber widely credited for indoor toilets. Thank you, thank you, thank you.