The Grammarphobia Blog

A Caucasian wingnut?

Q: My family and I were visiting New York from Iowa City last week and went to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where we spotted a tree labeled “Caucasian Wingnut.” It’s in the walnut family. I think it should be the tree for this election cycle.

A: Wow! We checked out the picture, and it’s a stunning tree. Here’s how Richard J. Berenson and Neil Demause describe it in The Complete Guidebook to Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden:

“This tree’s thick, gnarled trunk supports several heavy branches, including one that charges off to the east with seeming disregard for the laws of gravity, suspended in midair by only the most tenuous hold on its trunk.”

The Caucasian Wingnut (Pterocarya fraxinifolia) originated in the Caucasus Mountains. The tree, which can grow to nearly 100 feet, got the second part of its common name from the long chains of winged nutlets that hang on the branches.

The tree that grows in Brooklyn is about 90 years old and requires “a bit of mechanical support” to keep that wayward branch from breaking, according to The Tree Care Primer, published by the botanic garden.

As for the term “wingnut,” when it first showed up in the early 20th century it  referred to a nut (the kind you find in a hardware store) with a pair of winglike projections.

The first citation for the term in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1910 issue of Chambers’s Journal: “The wing-nut on its shaft is released, the detachable rim-wheel placed on the shaft, and the nut replaced.”

We still use the word “wingnut” that way, of course. The wings enable us to turn the nut on a bolt with just our fingers, without using tools.

In the 1980s, the term “wingnut” also came to mean “an eccentric, a fool,” according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang.

And in the 1990s, Cassell’s says, the term was used by young people in Britain to refer to “a person with large, protruding ears.”

Finally, we come to the use of “wingnut” in its disparaging political sense.

Although the word has been used for both right-wingers and left-wingers, it’s more often seen in reference to the right. For example, “left-wing wingnuts” recently got 13,200 hits on Google while “right-wing wingnuts” got 34,100.

In fact, the political use of the term “wingnut” may have originated as a shortened form of “right-wing nut.”

The earliest example we can find for the long version is from Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49 (1966): “You one of these right-wing nut outfits?”

It apparently took a couple of decades for the short version to show up, however.

The linguist Lance Nathan, writing on the Language Log, offers several early citations, including one from a Canadian newspaper and one from an American paper.

A June 1998 item in the Globe and Mail, Nathan says, discusses ridding a right-wing party in British Columbia of “the taint of wing nuts and the image of extremism.”

And an October 1998 item in the St. Petersburg Times, he writes, refers to former President George H. W. Bush as “bowing to instinct and pressure from party wing nuts.”

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