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.

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comedy & tragedy

Tragos. Doodle by me.
Tragos. Doodle by me.

Comedy & Tragedy

According to Mallory and Adams in The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, there are 24 distinct verbs concerned with speaking in Proto-Indo-European. But if headlines these past weeks have been any measure, we all feel a bit speechless in our great many daughter Indo-European languages.

One such root for speech is *wed-, which Mallory and Adams gloss as “to raise one’s voice.”Oh, “the world may be too much with us; late and soon,” as Wordsworth moaned, but even he had to shout “Great God!” in that seismic volta.

In the Attic region of Ancient Greece, the famed Athenians there formed *wed– into oidos, a “singer” or “minstrel.” Indeed, that Romantic oidos John Keats versified many a great ode.

Some poets and actors of antiquity sang of the comic and were named komoidos. This comes from komos, meaning “a revel” or “merry-making”–or, properly, a “village festival,” according to Liddell and Scott’s seminal Greek dictionary. Latin borrowed the Greek komoidia to make comoedia, and English borrowed much later from French’s Latin-morphed comedie, staging comedy in the 14th century.

Others sang of the tragic, from tragos, a “he-goat.” This delivered tragodia or tragoidia, a “goat-song,” though this etymology is not settled. Mallory and Adams cite eight Proto-Indo-European roots for “goat,” four specifically meaning “he-goat.” Clearly, the goat–as sustenance and symbol–occupied a special, and frequently phallic, place in Indo-European life.

The Dramatic Goat 

So, if “goat,” why goat? Liddell and Scott note that ancient Greek tragedy was originally a “goat song, because in early times a goat was the prize [in a competitive event], or because the actors were clothed in goat-skins.”

Others, including the great Aristotle himself, argue this tragos points to the saturikon, the so-called satyric drama or satyr play, which featured tragic, though also comedic, tropes, motifs, and formulae involving satyrs, mythic creatures sometimes depicted as goat-legged men.

However, as The Oxford Classical Dictionary concludes, “tragoidia probably originally meant the song sung by singers at the sacrifice of a goat (in which the goat also may have been a prize), and has no inherent connection with the satyrs, who anyway were at this period more like horses than goats.”

Tragos traveled a similar path to komos to produce tragedy.

Ode to Odes

Other derivatives of oidos include melody, quite literally a “song-song” in Greek. We also have rhapsodya “stitcher of epic songs,” and parody, featuring a specialized meaning of “mock” for the prefix para-, “beside.” The less common epode, hymnody, monody, and threnody are also from oidos 

If we are to push back against “the pressure of reality,” as another poet, Wallace Stevens, put it, the ancient root oidos teaches us that we must not be silent but must raise our voices. In song, whether comic or tragic, through language, through imagination, we can create order out of the otherwise insensible and senseless chaos.

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the stand-up etymologist

Jerry Seinfeld: comedian, actor, writer, classic car collector and connoisseur, and…etymologist?

Sure, he’s a master of language, as comedians are. From “This, that, and the other” and “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” to “mimbo” and “mulva,” his punchlines have proven their staying power.

But word origins? Yep. And I encountered two from him. In one week. Jolly and doozy. Both came up in the context of classic cars, so, let’s fact-check his etymological engine check.


In an episode of his web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Louis C.K., Jerry features the 1959 Fiat Jolly:

The word jolly means “joker” in Italian and it also means something “light,” “fun,” “funny,” and “pretty” in several other languages.

Indeed, jolly in Italian indeed means “joker” or “wild card,” as in the playing card. It can also mean “handyman,” “factotum,” “jack of all trades,” or a sports “utility player.” Watch the episode. It’s jolly good. And, relative to the car, I think you’ll agree with the first Italian definition and raise your eyebrows at the second.

But is it all related to the English jolly?

This jolly, which Oxford glosses as “of a gay disposition, lively, festive, jovial,” came into English in the 1300s from the Old French jolif, later joli, variously meaning “merry,” “pleasant,” and “pretty.” (Words from the French like tardy and hasty also the final –f.) Italian has giulivo, meaning much the same, and probably due to northeastern Spanish and southern French influences.

Is it from Latin gaudere, “to rejoice,” related to English joy and from Proto-Indo-European *gau, meaning the same as the Latin verb? Or is it loaned from the Old Norse jol, cognate to yulewhich Skeat defines as “a great feast in the heathen time”? (Oxford is a bit more PC with jol as “midwinter festival,” “feast.”)

The origin is ultimately unknown. Oxford adds that jolly could mean “gallant,” “brave,” “confident,” and “amorous” in Middle English. “Gallant” and “brave” may explain the jolly in Jolly Roger, the pirate flag, whose origin may ultimately be lost at sea.

Could the Italian jolly have been influenced by gallant knaves–those jacks in the rather arcane history of playing cards? Or jokers, those merry, jolly jesters for a feasting king?

Or perhaps the English jolly and the Italian jolly are simply false friends.

As for the British adverbial jolly, as in a jolly good, Weekley notes that jolly’s Old French and Middle English “meanings are very wide,” likely contributing to its use as an intensifier. Quite the wide meanings indeed, as Weekley cites Cotgrave’s 1611 French-English dictionary:

Joli: jollie; gay, trim, fine, gallant, neat, handsome, feat, well-fashioned, minion, compt, polite; also, lively, merry, buxom, jocund.

Seems like jolly‘s has had its semantic jollies.


As for doozy, Seinfeld, participating in an AMA–an “Ask Me Anything” session–on Reddit, answered the following (click to enlarge):

Doozy? Screenshot from Reddit. H/t Slate.

True? I’d say Seinfeld did pretty well. A few contributors got a bit pedantic:

Pedantic? Screenshot from Reddit.

My sources did not have a whole lot to say on doozy, or something impressive, unique,  or outstandingThe Online Etymology Dictionary synthesizes the the best:

also doozie, 1903 (adj.), 1916 (n.), perhaps an alteration of daisy, or from popular Italian actress Eleonora Duse (1859-1924). In either case, reinforced by Duesenberg, the expensive, classy make of automobile from the 1920s-30s.

Eleonora Duse. Image from Nostra Italia.

Grains of Truth

Don’t give me that look, Eleonora. I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen that part bemused, part suspicious, part bored look of incredulity when I’ve offered many a friend a word origin. Just as they say there’s a grain of truth in every joke, so I like to be there’s a grain of truth in every etymology. And in this–and perhaps only this–Jerry Seinfeld and I have something in common.

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