Keen as Mustard?


What’s your favorite condiment of choice? Well, mine is mustard- particularly the horseradish-y tang in Trader Joe’s Dijon Mustard. Yummy! Which makes today’s post all the more scrumptious. It’s all about mustard!

Hear Ricciardo say it himself in the first 40 seconds. 

Last week, I came across a very unique turn of phrase. At the conclusion of the 2017 Monaco Grand Prix, when asked by an interviewer how he felt placing third on podium, Daniel Ricciardo replied, “I’m about as keen as a 24-pack of mustard. Juicy goodness. Just beyond the mustard and all that juiciness...” 

Honestly, I have to say, I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t even have scope for a frame of reference, either. I spent a little time laughing at it. Thinking, you know, especially after that whole shoey incident last year, that maybe Ricciardo was just weird in a sweetly endearing way. But, then I had to know. Was there some sort of etymological significance to this phraseology? 

Guess what? There is. And, it’s quite fun. 

Listen, my darlings, and you shall hear.

And my midnight ride ensued (I just couldn’t resist; although a great deal of my writing does take place between the hours of 11 P.M. and 3 A.M., so it’s not completely inapt). I galloped over to the Oxford English Dictionary and looked up the word mustard. (It’s always a good thing to start at the beginning, dontcha think?) In one of the definitions listed, the term keen as mustard is bolded with the definition: very enthusiatic. 

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The idiom is most popular in the United Kingdom and Australian, so if you’re an American, you might not have come across it.

So, here’s the skinny on how mustard came to be keen.

The British Royal Navy and the U.S. Marine Corp both play this song when entering formal dinners. 

A long time ago (in an England far, far away- just kidding), roast beef was established as the go to dish for the Englishman. And, just as horseradish must accompany prime rib, mustard was the condiment of choice to spruce up the mighty Roast beef of Old England- as Richard Leverage’s 1735 lyric says. (Don’t believe me. Here’s the song with the lyrics so you can follow along, or if you’re feeling intrepid, sing along. Although, that harpsichord does start to grate after a while. In an odd way, it reminds me of that Snickers commercial from years back; you know the one where Henry the VIII is singing Greensleeves with a Viking, a Greek, a Pilgrim and an Hawaiian. That sounds like the beginning of a joke.)

The word keen is a synonym for such words as piquancy, zest, tang. It’s not hard to see how the association of mustard, which has a piquant, zesty, tangy flavor, with the everyman’s meal could render the turn of phrase keen as mustard popular. That’s the theory anyway, and a pretty sound one to boot. I would hazard the opinion that the idiom is much older than the oldest recording we have of it. The schoolmaster William Walker first recorded the phrase in his book, Phraseologia Anglo-Latina, or, Phrases of the English and Latin tongue: together with Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina, or, A collection of English and Latin proverbs published in 1672. However, if the phrase was in such common use to warrant its inclusion in a collection of English proverbs and phrases, then it stands to reason that the phrase had traversed hither and yon before being committed to the page. (That is generally the way of words and phrases; they are shared in the spoken word for many, many years before someone gets the bright idea to immortalize them in print. Just look at Sir Thomas Malory and his compilation of the legends of King Arthur.)

That’s the etymological root for the phrase. But there’s a little more history attached to it, and that history might be the very reason that the phrase is still used today. 

In 1742, Messr Keen and his sons started the first mustard factory in England. (How's that for irony? Messr’s surname just happens to fit nice and tidily into a phrase that had been associate with mustard for 100 years. Built in advertising campaign, anyone?) About a century and a half later, Keen’s Mustard merged with J & J Colman. When I saw that name, I was familiar with it. I’ve seen the yellow tins of Colman’s powdered mustard in the supermarket. In fact, I have a tin of it in my spice cupboard. There’s a good chance, you might have a tin of it in your cupboard, too. 

Though no longer sold as Keen’s Mustard in the U.K., today it’s still sold in Australia under that title (and Canada, too). Which brings me back around to Daniel Ricciardo. Ricciardo is an Aussie. Most likely, he grew up with that very mustard in his kitchen. AND it could be just the reason why he so easily trotted out the phrase. To an Aussie or a Brit or a Canadian, that phrase has an association. As to the whole juicy goodness bit, I think that might just be an instance where the ‘honey-badger’ is just being his delightfully strange self. (Ricciardo has a motif of the fierce animal on the back of his helmet, seemingly to invoke the same sort of aggressive, fearlessness in his racing that the ratel is known for; he is now, good-naturedly, associated with the animal within the F1 family- except where his teammate Max Verstappen is concerned. Max teasingly responds to the invocation with the pat question, "Is that the stinky one?" Ah, boys will be boys.)

And just for a bit of fun... here's the Snickers commercial. Doesn't it remind you of Leverage's song? 

So, there you have it. Keen as mustard. Quite a bit of history for such a simple condiment. (Although the argument could be made- with all the different varieties of mustard on the market- that mustard is the least simple of the condiments.)

Do you know of any idioms or famous phrases associated with ketchup or pickle relish or any other customary condiment you’d find at the everyman's BBQ? 

And now that we know Daniel Ricciardo’s favorite condiment- and mine- which is yours?