Authors, emailers, bloggers, and writers of all kinds: are common mistakes making you look like a dum-dum? In our lovely English language, phrases sometimes take an ugly turn when sneaky homophones or sound-alikes get involved. For instance, have you ever offered to flush out an idea for someone? Unless the thought is lodged in your intestines, you should flesh out that bad boy instead. Have you ever bragged about pouring over a document? So long as you didn’t upend your water glass over it in disgust (though I’m sure you can remember reading something that bad), use pore, “to read or study attentively.” But these two examples are only cases of mistaken identity, words with similar sounds and different meanings. Once you've learned the meanings they’ll never fool you again. Sound-alikes can cause far more trouble when they invade an obscurer phrase, a metaphor that everyone knows but few understand. Below are three of the sneakiest infiltrators:
Cut the mustard
How many times have you heard someone claim that something “just doesn’t cut the muster”? The confusion comes from the similar sounds of “cut the mustard” and “pass muster.” The phrases have similarly similar meanings—to meet a standard or gain the necessary approval. But these sound-alikes are no relation to each other—each has its own origin and particular flavor.
Pass muster is a straightforward military term, in which a “muster” is an inspection of assembled troops. “Passing muster” is passing the inspection, right down to the shine on your shoes.
Cut the mustard first appeared in the O. Henry story “Cupid a la Carte” from Heart of the West (1902), in the mouth of a slightly food-obsessed traveling man who needed a restaurant that met his standards. Where “cutting” enters the picture no one’s quite sure; some suggest it’s the same sense as “a cut above” or has to do with mustard crops in some way. Mustard is definitely necessary to the meaning, though, not just a mishearing of “muster.” Mustard was a dominant condiment in turn-of-the-century America and referenced in several popular phrases. In Henry’s “The Phonograph and the Graft” from Cabbages and Kings, “the mustard in the salad dressing” is the most important element, the ingredient that gets the job done. Meanwhile, Webster's still lists one of mustard’s meanings as slang for “zest.” Personally, I prefer mithi chutney.
Toe the line
This phrase is often written “tow the line,” which would be correct if the image we were trying to elicit was more along the lines of hauling a particularly weighty rope or maybe dragging heavy things in single file. But that would be stupid, so we wouldn’t do that. The phrase “toe the line” means to behave, to conform to the rules or the standard, to follow the law of the land—often in the face of one’s express desire not to do so.
If you prefer a boring story, the saying comes from racers’ need to line up on or behind a starting line, with not even a toe over, to ensure a fair start. If you like better stories, the phrase comes from the British House of Commons, where partisans were required to stay behind lines (party lines?) when addressing their opponents—because the intuitive people who drew the lines made sure the men behind them would be more than a sword’s length apart.
Pent-up emotions, thoughts, or anger
The most common alternative form of this stock phrase is penned-up. Unique among the phrases we’re discussing here, this mistaken form does not actually change the meaning of the phrase significantly. Pent is the past participle of an obsolete verb meaning “to confine, shut up, repress.” Pen is the more familiar verb that describes what one does to animals that shouldn’t be wandering around. So pent-up emotions are restrained and held back, possibly to be dramatically released later; penned-up emotions are metaphorically corralled, possibly to escape later. The nonstandard form also raises the issue of agency: while emotions can only be pent up by the person who experiences them, anyone can pen something. But “penned” does replace the unfamiliar sound of the obsolete word with a sort of barnyard concreteness. I’ll still be using pent myself, but if you’re restraining yourself from expressing particularly cowed, pigheaded, or sheepish feelings, you might have an argument for pen.
Tip: For more on phrase origins, see the Word for Word archive, which has gems of insight on hundreds of popular sayings. If you’re more interested in correct vs. incorrect usage, see Paul Brians's Non-errors or Common Errors in English. For more tricky word pairs like those at the beginning of this article, see Melanie Spiller’s Quirky Words.