By Anatoly Liberman
Last week I mentioned the idiom to be (dead) nuts on ‘to be in love with’ and the verb spoon ‘to make love’ and promised to say something about both. After such a promise our readers must have spent the middle of January in awful suspense. So here goes. The semantic range of many slang words is often broad, but the multitude of senses attested for Engl. nut (see the OED) is amazing. I will reproduce some of them, both obsolete and current: “a source of pleasure or delight” (“To see me here would be simply nuts to her”), nuts in the phrases to be (dead) nuts on “to be in love of, fond of, or delighted with,” to be nuts about, as in “I was still nuts about Rex,” and to be nuts “go mad” (hence nutjob ~ nut job ~ nut-job “madman; idiot” and nutsy “crazy”). The exclamation nuts! means “nonsense,” while, contrary to expectation, the nuts signifies an excellent person. It will be seen that the senses can be positive, as in “a source a delight” (here are two more examples from my reading: “An English country gentleman might express himself concerning an agreeable incident: ‘It was nuts’” and “To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call ‘nuts’ to Scrooge”), and negative (“madness; stupidity”). Consequently, tracing nuts to German von Nutzen “of use” would be a false move (this origin of nuts has been proposed by a good German scholar). In etymological works, it is common to preface a hypothesis by a disclaimer to the effect that someone may have offered the same hypothesis, but the author is ignorant of it. I am obliged to do the same: my idea is so obvious, even trivial, that it must have occurred to anyone who wondered what nuts (as in hazelnuts or peanuts) have to do with either extreme pleasure or derangement.
The slang word nut in the singular is also frequent, but we note that in all the examples given above the plural nuts occurs. I suspect that the story begins with nuts “testicles,” even though the earliest recorded examples of this sense are late (however, it must have been so well-known in the United States more than a hundred years ago that The Century Dictionary included it). Nuts and genitalia have been compared for centuries. Thus, nut occurred with the sense of “the glans penis,” and the Germans call this part of the male organ of procreation Eichel “acorn” (in older writings on the history of words the glosses in such situations were always given in Latin; those who are embarrassed by plain English are welcome to use membrum virile). I suggest that nuts emerged as a loose word for expressing a strong feeling: nuts! “nonsense,” nuts! “wonderful,” nuts! “crazy,” and so forth. Such an exclamation can express any emotion. Nut “head” is probably an independent coinage (the head has been likened to all kinds of oblong and round objects in many languages); hence off one’s nut, though nuts “mad” may have reinforced that phrase. (The Russian verb o—et’, whose middle contains the most vulgar and formerly unprintable name for “penis,” means “to become mad”—another instance of genitalia and madness being connected; compare the metaphorical sense of Engl. prick).
Naturally, since nuts existed, the singular nut was soon derived from it (so from the plural to the singular, not the other way around, if my reconstruction is right). This is how nut “fop” arose. A correspondent to Notes and Queries wrote that a few years before 1913 it was usual in cabmen’s slang to describe a keen, sharp-witted person as a nut. “Then came the epidemic of young men with ‘doggy’ socks, of pink and green and heliotrope, and they were promptly labelled ‘the nuts’. The word by this time meant not so much keenness as dressiness, up-to-dateness—the lineal successors of the ‘mashers’ of the earlier day.” Compare a colorful description of a masher in my previous post. Incidentally, doggy means “dashing, stylish,” from dog “style,” as in the familiar idiom to put on (the) dog “make a vulgar display of wealth.”
Sexual metaphors of this type are not too common, at least in English, despite the unstoppable stream of new words and their derivatives denoting genitalia and intercourse. But some exist. For example, randy goes back to a verb for “copulate” (German ranzen, used about animals, means “to have intercourse”), and a few other Germanic words for “to be mad, move erratically” first meant “to be in heat.” Perhaps nuts is one of such sex words.
We can now turn to spoon. Spoon “to be in love, pay court and wax lackadaisical in the process,” the noun spoon “fool,” and spoony “fool; foolish” probably have nothing to do with spoons. It was noticed as early as 1874 that Engl. to spoon corresponds exactly to German löffeln (the noun Löffel means “spoon” and the verb has the same meaning as in English), but the scholar who made this observation did not go further than stating that sometimes the same metaphor can arise independently in two languages. However, in 1975 John T. Krumpelmann discovered that all the authors (as given in the OED) who used such words as spoonery, spooniness, spoonish, spoonism, and spoony in the first half of the 19th century were in some way connected with Germany or the German language. “Evidence seems to indicate that this meaning of spoon was borrowed from Löffel, the current German word for ‘spoon’.” The same holds for the verb to spoon. Krumpelmann concluded that in English the noun and the verb are transplants of German Löffel and löffeln. This looks like a plausible conclusion.
German speakers, unless they are language historians, also think that their lovers are in some mysterious way connected with the utensil, but the association, if it exists, is indirect. One has to begin with German Laffe “simpleton, fool,” possibly related to the verb laffen “to lick” (so a fool was considered to be some sort of “licker”). Löffel derives from laffen by two sound changes: a to e (umlaut) and e to ö (“rounding”: compare Engl. twelve and German zwölf). If this is correct, spooning does have some relation if not to eating, then at least to licking. The tie between “fool” and “lover” poses no problems at all (“for nuts”). Enamored people see no drawbacks in the objects of their devotion. We all know it, and language constantly reminds us of the nature of infatuation (Latin fatuus “inane”). The adjective fond meant “foolish” (so still in Shakespeare). Dote also meant “to be silly or weak-minded” (hence dotage), but doting on one’s children and being fond of them (to give the most innocuous example) does not necessarily presuppose idiocy. It appears that for everyday communication it is better to be unaware of the history of the words we use. Too much knowledge may produce confusion, while ignorance is bliss. Etymology should be left for dessert.
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 him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”