Now tell me, is it really the brush?

Posted on June 30, 2010

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In leaving a comment on my post CSI: Midwest, Jon in France mentioned the phrase “tarred with the same brush.” This gives me the right to reprint a piece I wrote some time ago for an editor’s site I used to run.


Nooo! Not with the same brush.

We’ve all heard the expression.

You criticise a particular group of people — immigrants, fast food employees, stock brokers, bankers, fighter pilots — and someone will say, “You shouldn’t tar them all with the same brush.”

The expression, of course, comes from the days when communities occasionally expressed displeasure with offending members by coating them in tar and dumping feathers on them. Never an authorised punishment in the New World, it did have some degree of official sanction in England, the earliest recorded instance being found in the orders issued by Richard I to his navy as they headed for the Holy Land in 1191. By Richard’s command, any “theife or felon,” after being lawfully convicted, was to “have his head shorne, and boyling pitch poured upon his head, and feathers or downe strawed upon the same whereby he may be knowen.” In the United States, the practice was especially popular when dealing with the British Customs service and its informers.1

Of course, the idea behind the expression is that, just because someone belongs to the same group as a person who has given offence, you shouldn’t judge them solely on the basis of it. As a piece of advice, I can’t help but to agree.

It’s the expression itself that puzzles me.

Suppose I’ve been rounded up along with someone else who has, in some way, sinned against the community, and we’re both condemned to a good old-fashioned tar-and-feathering. Is it really the use of the same brush that’s going to give me concern?

Only those who can cut the mustard get to drive the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile.

Another puzzling expression arises when we dismiss someone’s abilities by saying that they “don’t cut the mustard.” While someone incapable of  performing the simple task of cutting mustard is admittedly not very skillful, holding this criterion up as a standard of competence doesn’t seem to be setting the bar particularly high.

The origins of this phrase are long obscured. Some believe it is a corruption of “muster,” as in the ability to “pass muster” or to pass inspection as in a muster of troops. Others hold that it refers to the addition of vinegar to the mustard seed as a means of “cutting” its bitterness.

While some authorities claim that the first recorded instance of this expression, which seems to be American in origin, is to be found in a 1902 story by O. Henry, Gary Martin at The Phrasefinder has turned up an earlier example from an 1897 copy of The Iowa State Reporter, in which a headline about the rivalry between two towns reads: “Dubuque had the crowds, but Waterloo ‘Cut the Mustard.’” As Martin points out, the quotations around the words, along with a complete lack of explanation, strongly indicate that readers probably were already acquainted with the phrase.2

Whatever the ultimate origin, I’m not about to bend over backwards trying to find out.

Not that I have any idea how such an awkward position could possibly help.


1. Wikipedia Author. “Tarring and feathering.” Wikipedia. 2009. Wikimedia Foundation. Web.10 Aug 2009. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarring_and_feathering&gt;.

2. Martin, Gary. “Cut the mustard.” The Phrase Finder. 2009. The Phrase Finder. Web.10 Aug 2009. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/cut-the-mustard.html&gt;.

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