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?
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.