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From Collins:


If you say that someone can't hack it or couldn't hack it, you mean that they do not or did not have the qualities needed to do a task or cope with a situation.


You have to be strong and confident, and never give the slightest impression that you can't hack it.


COBUILD Advanced English Dictionary. Copyright © HarperCollins Publishers

Is it only a variation of "(can't) cut it" or does it trace its roots back to another place?

  • 2
    it's astonishing you did not realize that: the image you posted was tremendously too large beyond social norms.
    – Fattie
    Sep 26, 2017 at 20:29
  • It's a phone screenshot. I was in a pinch.
    – Daniel
    Sep 27, 2017 at 8:13
  • Copy and paste the definition? Screen readers, i.e. the programme used by many blind or people whose eyesight is severely impaired, do not read images.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 27, 2017 at 10:33
  • I would say there's about a 50% chance that the term is derived from American baseball (or possibly British cricket).
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 11, 2019 at 0:08

2 Answers 2


This is just a quick answer:

To be the mustard = to be special (circa 1903)

To cut the mustard = to succeed (1907)

To cut it = to succeed (once the previous idiom was established)

To hack it = to cope (circa 1955)


The expression appears to be an AmE one from the ‘50s. The Phrase Finder suggests a possible derivation from an earlier and even more mysterious expression “can’t cut the musturd” with the same meaning:

Can’t hack it :

  • Slang sense of "cope with" (as in can't hack it) is first recorded in American English 1955.

From the Phrase Finder:

The Oxford English Dictionary, after giving the principle uses of "hack", such as chop or chop at, mutilate with jagged strokes, give us this:

d) To cope with, manage, accomplish; to tolerate, accept; to comprehend; freq. to hack it. slang (orig. U.S.):

  • : 1955 Antioch Rev. XV. 379, I can't hack something like stealing.. .

If, as seems likely, "can't hack it" originated as American slang in the 1940s or '50s, it probably was introduced as a variation on "can't cut it" (with the same meaning). The it in "can't cut it" is the mustard; and the phrase "cut the mustard" is wreathed in mysteries as well.

Also, from dailywritingtips:

  • One school of thought is that hack simply derives from an Old High German word that refers to chopping. (A short, sharp cough is also called a hack.) From that meaning, it derived the figurative sense of crudely or ruthlessly working on something and then of simply toiling; by extension, the word was applied to being able or unable to manage or tolerate something: The now-rare expression “You just can’t hack it” expressed this idea.
  • great answer thanks. (1) "The now-rare expression" what the hell are they talking about? (2) "A short, sharp cough is also called a hack." - why did they add that parenthesis? It has nothing, whatsoever, to do with anything under discussion. Bizarre
    – Fattie
    Sep 26, 2017 at 20:30
  • You're saying it's not at all rare, right?
    – Daniel
    Sep 27, 2017 at 8:14

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