Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor


Episode 109: Some Spicy Expressions

This week, we feature some lighthearted summer fare by looking at expressions that include the word mustard. According to linguist and author Michael Quinion, the word mustard has a long-established use as a superlative. This is corroborated in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, edited by John Ayto, which cites slang use of mustard in O. Henry's 1894 story, Cabbages and Kings.

To help us understand mustard expressions even further, we thought we'd talk to a true expert in the field. Barry Levenson is the author of three books, and he's also the founder and curator of the Mustard Museum in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin.

"Mustard is a very sharp flavor, so it's easy to put it into language," Levenson explains, "just as things that are dramatic in their very nature tend to crawl into the language."

Levenson describes expressions such as the proper mustard (the genuine article), to be all the mustard (essentially, to be good) and to cut the mustard (to do a task well).

As the author of the book The Seventh Game: The 35 World Series That Have Gone the Distance, it's clear that Levenson's other passion is baseball. In the interview, Levenson gives an example of a linguistic intersection of mustard and baseball that's often heard during broadcasts of games.

Beyond mustard, Levenson describes his current work to promote adjectives and adverbs through an adopt-a-word initiative. "A lot of people say that nouns and verbs are all you need to express yourself," he says. "But without adjectives and adverbs—used judiciously, of course—I think language would be very boring. If you think of it, adjectives and adverbs are the condiments of the language."

Levenson says it's always a pleasure talking about words. "There are few tools we have," he says. "We have got 26 letters of the alphabet, spaces and a handful of punctuation marks. What we do with them is up to us."

Listen to the complete interview to hear more of Levenson's wit and wisdom.

Sources: Michael Quinion's World Wide Words; Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, edited by John Ayto. Also referenced: The Seventh Game: The 35 World Series That Have Gone the Distance by Barry Levenson.

Music from this episode: "Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat)" by Detroit Cobras; "The Mustard Museum Song" by LT & Friends (free download)

Link: The Mustard Museum

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