To its supporters, last week’s preliminary deal with Iran marks a momentous step towards nuclear nonproliferation. To its opponents, it’s plain nuts. Good deal or bad deal, nuclear is indeed nutty, etymologically speaking.
Nuclear is evidenced in the English language since 1833, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Its nucleus, if you will, nucleus, is attested much earlier in 1668, referring to the core of a comet and attributed to Polish statesman and astronomer Johannes Hevelius. Nucleus‘ sense of core made it quite useful to the sciences down the centuries, applied not only in astronomy but also in anatomy, biology, chemistry, and eventually physics. Michael Faraday used it to describe the hypothetical core of an atom, which Ernest Rutherford confirmed in 1911, using the term in his paper in the following year.
Where does nucleus come from? You guessed it: Latin, where it means “nut” or “kernel,” connected to nucula (“small nut”), a diminutive of nux, also naming a “nut” or “nut tree.” This nux turns out to be related to English’s own nut (Old English hnutu), with Proto-Indo-European scholars positing a root in *kneu-, again “nut.”
Aside from other scientific forms, such as nucleotide, nucleic, and nucellus, nux may have yielded the French-based newel, originally the central pillar of a spiral staircase, today primarily referring to the main post of a handrail. While this connection is uncertain, nut is solidly related to nougat, that delectable confection made from sweetened egg whites and nuts, especially almonds.
As Seinfeld‘s George Constanza made clear in his notorious battle over a Twix candy bar, “I think I’ve reached the point in my life where I can tell the difference between nougat and cookie.” Oh, if only nuclear agreements were this hilarious and delicious.