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.
1. *past muster for pass muster: Stage 1
2. *pass mustard for pass muster: Stage 1
Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner