The Grammarphobia Blog

When “old chestnut” was new

Q: You’ve used the expression “old chestnut” on your blog, but you’ve never explained its origin. Where does it come from?

A: There’s no definite answer here, but all the evidence points to an origin in 19th-century show business.

Before going on, we should mention that the word “chestnut” was spelled “chesnut” for much of its life, but we’ll use the modern spelling except when quoting an early source.

Since the 1800s, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “chestnut” has been used figuratively to mean “a story that has been told before, a ‘venerable’ joke.”

In extended use, the dictionary says, a “chestnut” means “anything trite, stale, or too often repeated.” The adjective “old” was added along the way for emphasis.

But what’s the literal connection? Did the stale old “chestnut” originally refer to the tree, to the nut, or perhaps to a chestnut-colored horse?

The OED’s formal answer: “origin unknown.” However, the dictionary offers a possible explanation.

The usage may have been inspired by an early 19th-century melodrama, William Dimond’s The Broken Sword, which includes a scene featuring a chestnut tree.

The comic relief in the play, first performed in London in 1816, is provided by Captain Zavior, a character who monotonously retells his old exploits, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering servant Pablo, who knows them by heart.

Here’s the scene involving the chestnut tree (we’ll expand the OED’s citation):

Zavior: Let me see—aye! it is exactly six years since, that peace being restored to Spain … I mounted a mule at Barcelona, and trotted away for my native mountains. At the dawn of the fourth day’s journey, I entered the wood of Collares, when suddenly from the thick boughs of a cork tree—

Pablo: (Jumping up.) A chesnut, Captain, a chesnut.

Zavior: Bah! you booby, I say, a cork.

Pablo: And I swear, a chesnut—Captain! this is the twenty-seventh time I have heard you relate this story, and you invariably said, a chesnut, till now.

Zavior: Did I? Well, a chesnut be it then. But, take your seat again.

Pablo: Willingly—Only out with the cork, and I’m your man for sitting.

Zavior: Well then—from the thick boughs of a chesnut, suddenly slipped down a little boy, who cast himself on his knees in the path before me. … I dismounted, fasten’d my mule to the—the—

Pablo. (Eagerly.) Chesnut.

Zavior. Well, well, the tree that stood next me.

The play, forgotten now, was very popular in its day. It got rave reviews, had long runs in London and New York, and was a favorite with touring theatrical companies.

So it’s “plausible,” as the OED puts it, that “chestnut” became show-biz slang for a worn-out story and, by extension, anything trite, stale, or too often repeated.

Unfortunately, the dictionary’s first citation for the figurative use of “chestnut” doesn’t appear until many decades later—1880.

But we’ve found what might be an early figurative use—a pun from 1826 playing off the “chestnut” that’s a joke against the “chestnut” that’s a horse.

Here’s the passage, from Charles Dibdin’s comic poem “My Kingdom for a Horse.” He italicizes words for horse colors that have other meanings:

“No critic can carp at the bays,
Though jokes on each chestnut he cracks,
And, should he look blue at the grays,
Molineaux will stand up for the blacks.”

(From Universal Songster: Or, Museum of Mirth, London, 1826. Tom Molineaux was an African-American prizefighter who toured professionally in Britain in the early 1800s.)

And we’ve come across an anecdote, supposedly from 1867, that was reported in a California newspaper, the Daily Alta, in its issue of April 27, 1885:

“Hanley, Harrigan & Hart’s old theatrical manager … says that the term originated eighteen years ago. He alleges: ‘In 1867 I was traveling through New York, putting an old play called ‘The Broken Sword’ on the stage with Marietta Ravel as leading lady.’ ”

Here the manager summarizes the comic chestnut-tree routine from 1816, with Captain Zavior and Pablo, that we quoted above. He then continues:

“ ‘After the performance in Rochester, P. Connelly, dead now, was in one of the dressing-rooms with others of the company, and he started to get off a funny story. Everybody interrupted with shouts of ‘Chestnut!’ It clung to the company all season, and, of course, was soon caught by the profession.’ ”

The OED’s earliest example for “chestnut” in the sense of something that’s repeated too often is from a May 27, 1880, American diary entry that also has a theatrical connection:

“When he said that the song was ‘Nancy Lee’ we girls nearly fainted! … Really, I thought we should choke with laughter and dismay. Think of doing that awful old ‘Nancy Lee’—such a chestnut!—in a romantic Portuguese opera, and following it up with that hoppy, romping dance!” (From Diary of a Daly Débutante, first published in 1910 and written by Dora Knowlton Ranous, an actress in Augustine Daly’s theatrical company.)

And this 1889 example nicely meshes with the 1867 anecdote above. In Reminiscences of J. L. Toole (1888), by Joseph Hatton, the American actor Joseph Jefferson is quoted on the origin of “chestnut.”

After repeating the relevant lines from The Broken Sword, Jefferson continues:

“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.”

From 1880 onward, the OED has citations for this figurative “chestnut”—and the more emphatic “old chestnut” (from 1886)—extending into the late 20th century. The expression has been used for everything from an old repertory piece to a stale idea for advertising copy.

Given the popularity of that old melodrama, it’s reasonable to suggest that the usage began among actors and spread into general usage.

However, another expression involving chestnuts was in the air when William Dimond’s play came along, and it might have given the figurative “chestnut” usage a boost.

This older expression, very popular in its day, was a catch phrase to the effect that a “horse chestnut” is not the same as a “chestnut horse.”

We’ve found scores of published examples, the earliest from an entry in the journal of Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall in reference to the 1808 session of the House of Commons. (The entry was included in his memoirs, published posthumously in 1836.)

Here’s the journal entry, from a passage largely devoted to parliamentary business:

“Mr. Matthew Montagu seconded the address to the throne. It was of him that General Montagu Mathew, brother to the Earl of Landaff, said in the last house of commons (upon some mistakes arising relative to their identity, produced by the similarity of their appellations), ‘I wish it to be understood that there is no more likeness between Montagu Mathew and Matthew Montagu, than between a chesnut horse and a horse chesnut.’ ”

When the story was picked up by a Philadelphia literary digest in 1809, it was embellished a little:

“There are two members in the house of commons, named Montagu Mathew, and Mathew Montagu; the former a tall handsome man; and the latter a little man. During the present session of parliament, the speaker, having addressed the latter as the former, Montagu Mathew observed, it was strange he should make such a mistake, as there was as great a difference between them as between a horse chesnut and a chesnut horse.” (From Select Review, and Spirit of the Foreign Magazines.)

That same parliamentary anecdote inspired a humorous poem that ran in the November 1808 issue of The Sporting Magazine, London.

The anonymous poem, “A Chapter on Logic: Or, the Horse Chesnut, and the Chesnut Horse,” was described by the editors as “occasioned by” the incident in the House of Commons.

It’s too long to quote here, but we’ll give you the gist. A young “Eton stripling” who’s a student of logic is invited to spend a fortnight at the estate of his uncle, who is something of a practical joker.

Sir Peter, promising to give his nephew a “chesnut horse,” leads him to a tree, shakes from its branches “a fine horse-chesnut,” hands it to the youth and says, “saddle it and ride.” By the rules of logic, he tells the boy, “a horse-chesnut is a chesnut horse!”

The poem became a popular recitation piece, remaining in print through most of the 19th century.

But apart from its humorous use, the motif of the horse chestnut versus the chestnut horse cropped up frequently in serious 19th-century British and American writing as a rhetorical device for contrasting and comparing. Here’s an example:

“No two things in nature, not a horse-chestnut and a chestnut-horse, could be more different.” (From Maria Edgworth’s novel Harrington and Ormond, 1841.)

As for the etymology of “chestnut,” the word for the tree in Old English, cistenbeam or cystbeam, was derived from Germanic sources.

But the term evolved in Middle English under the influence of Middle French. The Gallic word for the tree (chastaigne) gave Middle English a word spelled various ways, including chesteine, chasteine, and chesten.

In 1519, according to the OED, the term “chesten nut” showed up, meaning the nut itself. Later in the 1500s the word “chesnut” appeared in reference to both the tree and the nut.

As the dictionary explains, “Chesten-nut was soon reduced to chestenut, chestnut, and chesnut: the last was the predominant form (82 per cent. of instances examined) from 1570 to c1820.”

The “chestnut” spelling, which was adopted by Samuel Johnson in his dictionary of 1755, “prevails in current use,” according to the OED.

Current standard dictionaries no longer include the old “chesnut” spelling.

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