What is the “chest” in “chestnut”?

I don’t know about you, but I primarily associate the word chestnut with that opening octave in “The Christmas Song”: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” Every holiday season, this melody, this first line, this first word, really gets stuck in my head. This year, with chestnut nipping at my brain, I found myself asking: what is the chest in chestnut?

“Chestnuts.” Doodle by me. 


What do we find when we open chestnut’s chest? More chestnuts. Originally, a chestnut was actually a chesten nut. And a chesten was, well, a chestnut.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates chesten nut back to the early 1500s. Perhaps for clarity, emphasis, or distinction of the fruit from the tree, this redundant nut was added to chesten. The OED notes that speakers eventually reduced the phrase chesten nut to shorter forms, including chesnut and chestnut. The latter prevailed.

Now, this chesten evolves out of Middle English’s chesteine, which comes from French’s chastaigne, in turn from Latin’s castanea. These all refer to the chestnut tree or its fruit.

Looking ahead, Latin’s castanea eventually formed Spanish’s castaña, whose diminutive castañeta yields those nut-shaped percussion instruments we call castanets.

Old English actually already had an earlier form of chestnut in cyst-béam (“chestnut tree”), from Germanic sources, suggesting ancient Germanic tribes may have borrowed the word from the Latin root.

Loanwords roasting on an open fire

Looking back, Latin formed castanea on the Greek καστανέα (castanea), which we actually find in a longer phrase: κασταναῖον κάρυον (Kastanaion karyon), the “Castanian nut.” (You might recognize karyon, “nut,” in eukaryote.)

Where is this Castania, if you will? Some say Kastanaion refers to Castanea, or Pontus, the modern-day eastern Black Sea region of Turkey. Others locate it in Castana, or Thessaly. Both places, word historians speculate, were named for the chestnut trees that grew there.

Looking further back, some etymologists compare the Greek καστανέα with the Armenian kask (“chestnut”) and kaskeni (“chestnut tree”), concluding, as Barnhart does, the Greek word was ultimately “borrowed from a language in Asia Minor.”

It seems the chest in chestnut is just a chestnut.

That hoary old chestnut?

Chestnut, we know, can also refer to a certain reddish-brown color and horses with such a colored coat. In slang, a chestnut can also name a well-worn story or joke, which is first documented in the 1880s.

Some argue that this chestnut is so called because people told stories around fires, where the nuts were roasted. Others link the stale humor of a chestnut to the nut’s toughness.

But the origin of the term may actually lie in a little bit of comedic dialogue between characters Captain Zavior and Pablo in William Dimond’s 1816 play, The Broken Sword (note chesnut):

Zav. Let me see–aye! it is exactly six years since, that peace being restored to Spain, and my ship paid off, my kind brother offer’d me a snug hammock in the dwelling of my forefathers;–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–

Pab. (Jumping up.) A chesnut, Captain, a chesnut.

Zav. Bah, you booby! I say, a cork.

Pab. 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.

In the late 1880s, the provenance of the term was much discussed in newspapers, apparently. The January 1888 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine credits this ‘cracking’ of chestnut to a Mr. Joseph Jefferson, who traces the term to William Warren, an actor who often played this Pablo. Michael Quinion weighs in further, if you’re interested.

This holiday season, when all the gifts have been given and all the carols have been sung, keep the merriment moving with this old chestnut of a etymology. Nothing, surely, fills people with that holiday cheer like a good word origin.

m ∫ r ∫

the food groups, part ii

This post, we pick up on the food groups, looking at dairyprotein, and oils.


Dairy is the kind of word that makes etymology nerds like me jump up and down. It features disguised compounds. When words get smashed together with other words, sounds change and forms change, sometimes making one word look like another, other times burying a compound altogether. As the preeminent etymologist Anatoly Liberman puts it, “compounds tend to deteriorate.”

Dairy is a full-fat example of this.

In Middle English, the word dairy took the form deieriejoining dey (among other forms) and the suffix –ery. Dey first referred to a “female servant.” Later, it meant a “farm servant” and “dairymaid.” The suffix -ery can denote the place of a particular activity, Here, a dairy was originally the room or building “for treating milk and its products” (Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology [ODEE]). Think bakery or laundry for some –ery comparisons.

There is much to unpack in terms of the historic constructions of women and work implied in dey, but, on an etymological level, what’s going?

Dey is from the Old English dæge, a “female servant,” but, literally, it meant a “kneader of bread.” The word is rolled out from the Proto-Germanic *daigjon; the sense of “kneading” is at root. The product of kneading, dough is a cognate. If we knead this *daigjon further, we find a Proto-Indo-European root *dheigh, meaning, according to Jordan Shipley, everything from “knead” and “mix dough” to “shape clay” and “put together.”

Human tongues have shaped some other fascinating forms out of this *dheigh, but we’ll save them for next post.


Protein: the building blocks of life and, as a coinage, an example of one of the building blocks of etymology. In an 1838 article in Bulletin des sciences physiques et naturelles en neerlande, Dutch scientist Gerhard Johan Mulder uses a French formation, protéine, to describe the composition of some organic substances.  Apparently, this word was the suggestion of Jöns Jacob Berzelius, the accomplished Swedish chemist, who is also given credit for polymer and catalysis, among other terms.

So, why protéine? At root is the Greek proteios, “of the first quality,” joining protos (“first”) and the -eios suffix. It was so named as a “primary substance…of material bodies of animals and plants” (Oxford English Dictionary).

Proto- is a member of the big family headed by the Proto-Indo-European *per-, which came to mean everything from “through” and “around” to “before” and “first.” Per-, peri-para-, and pro- may all be familiar prefixes derived from it. They are still productive today.

Our understanding of protein has evolved, to be sure, for now protein is considered one of the three food groups in Orange County, CA. The others being, of course, juice (i.e., blended juices and smoothies) and Starbucks.

Doodle by me. Click to enlarge.


Health advice aside, even etymology is urging you to use olive oil as your cooking oil. For oil, etymologically, is olive oil.

Oil, whose historic spellings are more varied than your choices of olive oil at the grocery store, is from the Old and Middle French oile, pressed from the Latin oleum. It referred to “oil,” thus “olive oil.” Old English had ele, a cognate of oil, but Germanic languages jumped on the Latin oleum food craze, and a new brand, if you will, made it into the pantry.

The Latin oil goes further back to the Greek elaion, the “olive tree” or “olive.” The Romans took elaion up as oliva, hence olive. The Online Etymology Dictionary speculates that the Greek root might be related to the Armenian ewi, “oil,” adopted into Greek from Aegean or Cretan tonuges. Aremenian is indeed an Indo-European language with some kinship to Ancient Greek. Wiktionary seconds this ewi cognate, adding the Old Church Slavonic’s loi, “tallow,” and posits a Proto-Indo-European *loiwom.

Petroleum is literally “rock oil,” joining the Latin petra (rock, via Greek) and oleum (as discussed above). Shipley observes that petroleum was “first extracted from fissures in rock.” Margarine is short for oleomargarine. The oleo- refers to “oil,” of course, and the margarine refers to “margaric acid,” named from the Greek margarites, “pearly,” for the acid’s crystal’s “pearly lustre” (ODEE). And now you know why a Margaret is so named.

Next post, we’ll pick up on *dheighincluding the surprising origins of lady and lord.