pass muster

This phrase began as a military term meaning “to undergo review without censure.” It has since caught on in the language generally, in the sense “to prove worthy”—e.g.:

  • “[The prize] goes only to firms that meet a stringent set of criteria and pass muster in detailed on-site inspections.”

    Will Astor, “From a Two-Bay Garage to the Baldridge,” Rochester Bus. J., 15 Nov. 1996, at 10.

  • “When the deal was announced in April, Gingrich’s aides were confident it would pass muster in the ethics panel.”

    Marc Lacey & Janet Hook, “Panel Stiffens Terms for Gingrich to Pay Penalty,” Ariz. Republic, 16 May 1997, at A1.

The phrase is mangled in various ways, as by writing *past muster—e.g.:

  • “None of these shows, with their puppets and stuntmen in rubber suits, would past [read pass] muster with today’s video-savvy youngsters.”

    Stephen Kopfinger, “Old Shows Still Beat Modern TV,” Lancaster New Era, 7 Jan. 1996, at B2.

  • “Despite such strong backing, the design must past [read pass] muster with the Secretary of the Interior ….”

    Steve Litt, “The Mall, Unhallowed,” Plain Dealer (Cleveland), 11 May 1997, at I8.

Quite apart from that error, the phrase invites condiment-inspired puns—e.g.:

“The seventh and newest Wienermobile to crisscross America is a bite-sized vehicle compared to Oscar Mayer’s beloved hot-dog fleet. But the ‘mini’ has proved this summer to, um, pass mustard.”

Tom Alesia, “Oscar Mayer Takes Bite Out of Wienermobile,” Wis. State J., 6 Aug. 2008, at A1.

Sadly, it’s no joke sometimes—e.g.:

  • “Asked about albums he digs from the past decade, [Joel] O’Keeffe cites Iron Maiden and Judas Priest’s latest. For O’Keeffe, not even a heavy Jack White riff passes mustard [read passes muster].”

    Jed Gottlieb, “Motorhead Gets Airbourne’s Rock Engines ‘Runnin’,’” Boston Herald, 27 Mar. 2008, at 36.

  • “Cleanup hitters are judged much more by their run production than their on-base percentage, but Jeff Crawford could pass mustard [read pass muster] on either count.”

    Chris Kennedy, “Crawford Igniting Bombers,” Republican (Springfield, Mass.), 10 June 2008, at C2.

Language-Change Index

  • 1. *past muster for pass muster: Stage 1

  • 2. *pass mustard for pass muster: Stage 1

  • An asterisk (✳) precedes words and phrases that are invariably inferior forms.
    Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner