By Anatoly Liberman
In the eighties of the 19th century, chestnut “a piece of trite information” took American newspapers by storm, but the origin of this strange application of the name of a nut to a “Joe Miller” was lost as soon as the word came up. In 1888, James Murray, while working on the letter C for the OED, wrote the following: “Chestnut. Many circumstantial stories purporting to give the origin of the slang use of this for ‘stale joke, story heard before,’ appeared in the American newspapers in 1886 and 1887. As these differed in toto from one another, they testified to the ingenuity of their inventors, but gave no help towards the actual origin. Are there any facts as to this known?” The bite of Murray’s language is typical. He always begged his correspondents not to indulge in etymological guesswork but to supply him only with evidence. His readers sympathized with this attitude but kept sending him their suggestions.
In the entry chestnut in the OED, we read: “Origin unknown: said to have arisen in U.S. The newspapers of 1886-7 contain numerous circumstantial explanations palpably invented for the purpose. A plausible account is given in the place cited in quot. 1888.” The whole of the relevant quotation will be reproduced below, but it would be of some interest to read those circumstantial explanations even if they testify only to the ingenuity of their inventors. I am greatly obliged to two bibliographers (both incomparably more experienced in such matters than I am)—Stephen Goranson and Dennis Lien—who supplied me with many useful excerpts, but even they were unable to find the conjectures about which Murray spoke with unconcealed contempt. I came across only one such, second-hand: it was quoted in Notes and Queries (July 29, 1889) with reference to the Louisville Western Recorder, but without specifying the issue or date. Allegedly, chestnut is “a corruption of the old saying just not.” If the other etymologies are of the same type, they need not bother us. Perhaps all of them have been preserved in the archives of the OED.
The American dictionaries published close to the eighties (The Century Dictionary and Funk and Wagnalls [FW], 1893, which copied from it) wrote: “In allusion to a stale or worm-eaten chestnut.” This explanation remained in FW until 1959. Related explanations are chestnut, because it is old enough to have a beard and others like it. Frank Chance, about whom I have spoken admiringly more than once in this blog, suggested that chestnut might be a translation of French marron “a kind of chestnut” and “a stencil plate by means of which any word or pattern may be reproduced indefinitely” (he also mentioned a few comparable attributive uses). Some figurative senses of marron refer to things unlicensed or irregular. As always in such cases, the most important thing is not to find a plausible etymon (an old, worm-eaten nut or a French noun/adjective), but to explain why this word attained celebrity exactly when it did. Celebrity is no exaggeration. The name became so popular that a chestnut bell was invented. It was a little nickel-plated gong “attached to the coat or vest of the thoughtless.” When the wearer wished to be offensive or funny, he made use of the bell. The phrases (or compounds) chestnut gong and chestnut protectors existed too. Listeners rang them to express their derision. The device was said to have been invented in New York.
Additionally, chestnut was referred to the family name Chestnut. One more etymology perhaps deserves mention. A correspondent wrote to Notes and Queries in 1923: “I was told [in Philadelphia a few years ago] that the principal—I think the only—theatre in that town stood in Chestnut Street, until a rival house was opened in Walnut Street, which continues the line of Chestnut Street. The partisans of the older theatre attended a performance in the new one as jealous and vociferous critics, and when they recognized any phrase they had heard or passage that they had witnessed in the Chestnut Street theatre, they shouted ‘Chestnut, chestnut!’ I am bound to say that this does not sound very convincing; but I give it as the legend current in Philadelphia.”
If we disregard references to nuts, English or French, family names, garbled phrases like just not, and so forth, we will find only one lead worth pursuing. Tradition, despite its conflicting variants, derives chestnut from theatrical slang. The tale quoted approvingly by Murray has been repeated in many popular books and given additional credence by the Supplement to the OED. But the OED had enough space for only a tiny piece of that tale (from Hatton’s Reminiscences of J.L. Toole). Here is all of it.
“‘There is a melodrama,’ says Mr. Jefferson,’ but little known to the present generation, written by William Dillon, and called the Broken Sword. There are two characters in it—one a Captain Xavier, and the other the comedy part of Pablo. The captain is a sort of baron Munchausen, and in telling his exploits says:—I entered the woods of Colloway, when suddenly from the thick boughs of a cork-tree—“—Pablo interrupts him with the words, “A chestnut, Captain; a chestnut.”—“Bah,” replies the Captain; “Booby, I say a cork-tree!”—“A chestnut,” reiterated Pablo. “I should know as well as you, having heard you tell the tale these twenty-seven times.”—William Warren, who had often played the part of Pablo, was at a stage-dinner a few years ago, when one of the gentlemen present told a story of doubtful age and originality.” A chestnut,” murmured Mr. Warren, quoting from the play, “I have heard you tell the tale these twenty-seven times.”—The application of the lines pleased the rest of the table, and when the party broke up, each helped to spread the story and Mr. Warren’s commentary. And that,’ says Mr. Jefferson, ‘is what I really believe to be the origin of the word ‘chestnut’.”
A few things puzzle me about this etymology, by now itself a venerable chestnut. In the Reminiscences the name of the author appears as Dillon, but it must be Dimond (correctly given in the OED). Likewise, the Captain’s name was Zavior, not Xavier, a circumstance that makes the narrator’s memory an unsafe source of reference (though, to be sure, Xavier and Zavior only look different but are pronounced the same). Dimond’s “melo-drama” was published in 1816 and, despite its apparent success, has never been reprinted. The first edition of Joseph Hatton’s Reminiscences of J.L. Toole came out in 1888, when the slang word chestnut had become widely known, so that it was easy to fabricate a tale for the purposes of folk etymology (compare the report of the war of the theaters in Philadelphia). As far as we can judge, the homeland of chestnut “an oft-repeated joke” is the United States. What made it so wildly popular in American newspapers? Was The Broken Sword performed evening after evening on American stage? (Hardly so: the play “was little known to the present generation”). Why didn’t this word circulate in England before it surfaced in America? We are told that Warren whispered his remark. How did it become the talk of the town? I have great difficulty connecting the dots.
Modern dictionaries behave ignominiously. Under chestnut, they list the sense “a stale joke” and offer no etymology (not even “origin unknown”), as though it is natural for chestnut to have such a meaning. The old verdict “the numerous accounts of the origin of this use… are mutually exclusive and all incapable of proof” seems to be correct. But attempts to trace chestnut to theatrical usage may bear fruit, and this fruit (let us hope) will be less stale and worm-eaten than a rotten chestnut. At the moment we are nowhere near that goal.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”