Friday, July 25, 2008

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional, cleverly named series on words I'm looking up)


Recently, a New York Times editor named David Shipley rejected an opinion piece written by presidential candidate John McCain not long after running one by rival Barack Obama. A July 22 Los Angeles Times article asked why and then reported:
For a parallel piece to pass his muster, Shipley added, it "would have to
articulate, in concrete terms, how Sen. McCain defines victory in Iraq."

Normal people reading this may find their thoughts turning to issues of media bias and perceptions of media bias. Me, I'm stuck at: "Pass his muster"? What the hell is a muster and how do they know if Shipley really has one?

According to American Heritage and other dictionaries, muster is primarily a verb meaning "to call (troops) together, as for inspection" and variations also about calling things together or summoning (think "I mustered up the courage").

Muster does have a noun form that means, most often, a gathering -- usually of people.

So obviously, the well-known expression "pass muster" isn't literal. If so, it would mean to get something past a gathering of troops or other people. Clearly, "pass muster" is an idiom and a reference to the inspection of the troops that form into one of these muster things. And, yes, the dictionaries acknowledge the idiom.
Idiom. pass muster: To be judged as acceptable. -- American Heritage
But they don't mention any variation that uses a possessive determiner like "his." So "pass his muster" is not an idiom, nor is it completely logical as a straightforward construction.

Could you make a case for "pass his muster"? Probably. If you really wanted to. But if I were a copy editor in the Los Angeles Times editorial department and I had a muster, this usage would not have passed it.

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Joel said...

I don't have anything I need to say other than that I really like that last paragraph. :-)

June Casagrande said...

Thanks! I was worried that the whole entry would affect others the way it's affecting me: making me want a hot dog.

In fact, you might say that passing muster makes me relish the idea of a hot dog.

(Though clearly what I really need is more coffee.)

Willie Deuel said...

Well, at least it wasn't my personal favorite, "pass mustard."

I passed mustard once and it wasn't particularly pleasant.

June Casagrande said...

: )

I suppose it could've been worse. Could've been horseradish.


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