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On nuts and nerds

For decades the English-speaking world has been wondering where the word nerd came from. The Internet is full of excellent essays: the documentation is complete, and all the known hypotheses have been considered, refuted, or cautiously endorsed. I believe one of the proposed etymologies to be convincing (go on reading!), but first let me say something about nut. Although its etymology and history are puzzling, even mysterious, no one seems to care. Slang is a flower growing on a huge dunghill. Not unexpectedly, people tend to pay attention to the flower and disregard the dung.

Nut is an old word with excellent connections, and yet its etymology is obscure. The Old English for nut was hnutu. Many modern words beginning with n and l once had an h before those resonants. German Nuss and Dutch noot are obvious congeners of nut. Yet trouble begins early enough. German Nuss also means “a slap,” most often as an element in the compound Kopfnuss “a (light) slap on the back of the head” (Kopf means “head”). Opinions are divided on whether Nuss1 and Nuss2 are related. They may well be. But how are nuts connected with beating? There was indeed an Old English verb hnītan “to thrust, knock, come into collision,” with the uncertain by-form hnēotan. Did nuts regularly fall on people’s heads? More likely, nuts have always been associated with cracking (compare a hard nut to crack); hence the idea of beating and striking. If hnītan and nut are related, both must go back to some vague sound-imitating (onomatopoeic) base hVn, in which V stands for any vowel. (Direct ties between hnītan and hnutu cannot be established, because hnēotan may be a ghost word, while ī and short u belong to differed series of ablaut).

The Oxford Etymologist in disguise.

The plot thickens once we remember that the Latin for “nut” is nux, properly, nuk-s, whose root is only too familiar to us from nucleus and nuclear (nut “kernel”). Both the beginning and the end of the Latin word are “wrong” from the Germanic point of view. Since Old Engl. hnutu and its cognate began with an h, we should expect kn– in Latin (by the well-known law of the First Consonant Shift: Germanic f, th, and h correspond to non-Germanic p, t, and k), but find no k. Also, the root of hnut-u ends in t, while the last radical consonant of nuk-s is k. Therefore, strict etymologists deny the affinity between nut and nux. But special pleading is a tempting procedure, and the closeness of nut and nux is so great that all kinds of rules have been proposed to keep the two words in the same family.  It would be nicer if the Latin noun began with a k (knux), but, of course, if words for knocking came from saying kn-kn-kn and if hnutu-nux are offspring of this root, regularity in this area can hardly be expected (for a similar problem search for kl-words in this blog).

It won’t surprise anyone that nut acquired various metaphorical meanings. Not unexpectedly, at one time, all kinds of round, especially small round, objects began to be called nuts (as seen, among others, in nuts and bolts). Nuts “testicles,” nut “head,” and even nut “a trifling object” need no additional explanation. The baffling move is from nut “head” to nut “blockhead, numskull” and other non-trivial metaphorical senses. Those senses were recorded extremely late, as the evidence in the OED shows. First, we find nuts “a source of pleasure or delight” and for nuts “for amusement, for fun” (1625), an isolated example (apparently, this slang existed underground for centuries). In 1895, not to be able to do a thing for nuts “to be incompetent” was attested (bean shared a similar fate). In 1917, the nuts “an excellent or first-rate person or thing” surfaced in a printed text. I have a suspicion that nuts “testicles” prompted all such uses and that they were current long before they appeared in books. Jocular (crude or simply humorous) references to the male genitals as a source of strength or joy are ubiquitous in uncensored speech. My suspicion is borne out by the existence of the adjective nutty “amorous (!); fond, enthusiastic.”

From nutty we may perhaps move to nut “fop, masher” (on masher see this blog for 12 January 2011). In England, the word enjoyed great popularity in the decades (or at least in the last decade) before the First World War.  Most aptly, one of those who contributed to the discussion of nut “fop” in Notes and Queries quoted Lafeu’s (or Lafew’s) remark on Parolles in All’s Well that Ends Well: “There can be no kernel in this light nut; the soul of this man is his clothes” (II: 5, 44). Besides, let us not forget the semantic and phonetic surroundings of this nut, namely, natty “neatly smart” and neat (the latter is a possible source of natty). Not only birds but also words of a feather stick together and influence one another. A nut of that epoch was someone who made a fool of himself in the eyes of non-nuts but who was also an analog of today’s cool dude. Since the nut of a century ago, like his sibling masher, was keen on impressing women, he obviously needed “nuts.” Already then some wits (wags, cards) spelled nuts as knuts, pronounced the first consonant, and joked that King Cnut (Canute, Knútr) was the first nut. One of the indefensible etymologies of nerd traces this word to knurd (drunk, if read backwards).

Supposedly, the kernels of this squirrel’s nuts are pure gold.

It is the sense of nut “nitwit, madman, etc.,”which also became common only in the nineteenth century, that is the hardest to explain. Should we again return to Parolles’s “the light nut”? Was this the forgotten path to the metaphor: from “nut” to “light nut” and ultimately to “a dim-witted, dotty character”? Nut “the amount of money required for a venture; any amount of money” was coined in the US.  Was it a product of the gold rush? Nuggets of gold must have been called nuts more than once. (Nug “lump,” the putative etymon of nugget, is another word of unknown origin.) I am slightly familiar with the old slang of Russian gold mining and find my guess not improbable.

A nerd. Isn’t he a dear?

There can be little doubt that nut has been an expressive word for centuries, and, as such, it could and did have expressive forms. There seems to be a consensus that the American coinage nertz ~ nerts “nonsense,” recorded only in 1929, is indeed an expressive variant of nuts. In this function, the syllable er is not uncommon (at least so in American English). Dr. Ari Hoptman called my attention to the pronunciation lurve for love in one of Woody Allen’s old movies. If nuts can be the etymon of nerts, I see no reason why nerd could not have the same source. To be sure, this idea has occurred to many people before me, but I wonder why it has not been accepted, why people keep pounding on an open door and say “etymology dubious, disputed, uncertain, unknown.” The etymology of such a word can never be “known,” but a sound hypothesis need not be listed for the sake of good manners along with all kinds of fanciful suggestions. Also, Dr. Seuss, who by chance coined his own nerd, should be left in peace amid his zoo. Nerd, like geek, wimp, and square, was launched as a derogatory term. With time, it acquired some endearing overtones. After all, not every intellectual is an old fogey or a social moron. But it is the origin, rather than the word’s later development, that interested us in this post.

Mixed nuts, like mixed nerds, are a delight.

Such is today’s story of mixed nuts.

Image credits: (1) Squirrel by Oldiefan, Public Domain via Pixabay. (2) Nutcracker by GraphicsUnited, Public Domain via Pixabay. (3) “Study of a portrait of a young nerd” by Ned Raggett, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr. (4) and Featured image credit: Mixed Nuts by cfinsbury, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    what about the strange spelling of nucular for nuclear? what kind of amusement this creates?

  2. Stephen Goranson

    Speaking of nuts and nerts, here’s a passage from a 1932 issue of Vanity Fair:
    “I have a wonderful idea for a humorous publication…Our first issue will have a full page burlesque of Beech Nut. I’m going to call it Beech Nerts…Get it?”
    Somewhat longer “snippet” at:

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