Nuts: to be or not to be …

Mixed Nuts

Do you know your nuts? (And I don’t mean that in a rude or ungrammatical way.)

I thought I did know, especially since I’m allergic to them. But I really don’t. I was aware that the fabulous peanut, which seems to be the quintessential nut in both name and appearance, isn’t actually a nut (it’s a legume). But it seems that the peanut isn’t the only impostor in our nutty midst. Take a look at the picture of the mixed nuts above. Those various protein forms have little in common with each other — they’re different colors, shapes, sizes, tastes and textures; in fact, the only quality they seem to share is the fact that they’re edible and plant-based. So what makes them nuts? (And I don’t mean to suggest they’re angry.) Well, that’s a hard question to answer — a tough nut to crack — because most of them aren’t actually nuts, at least not technically. Only one of the items pictured can lay rightful claim to that generic label.* So what exactly is a nut? And why do we call someone a nut — or nuts — when they’re off their trolleys?

If we’re talking about the plant kind — and not a bolt-fastener, a string support on a musical instrument, a crazy person, or a testicle — a nut is a simple dry fruit with one seed (very occasionally two) in which the seed case wall becomes very hard at maturity. A true nut doesn’t split: the seed and the fruit are the same thing. So to be a nut, you have to have quite a specific botanical identity. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a fruit consisting of a hard or tough shell around an edible kernel”; according to Merriam-Webster, a nut is “a hard-shelled dry fruit or seed with a separable rind or shell and interior kernel.” Examples of real nuts are chestnuts, beechnuts, hazelnuts, acorns, and pecans. But what about the other nuts that have “nuts” in their names — like walnuts, coconuts, pine nuts, or Brazil nuts? Amazingly, they’re all just pretending — like the peanut. Some of them are legumes, some are seeds, and some are drupes. Even some classic nuts with no nuts in their names turn out not to be nuts. Almonds, pistachios, cashews? They’re all impostors too — seeds and drupes masquerading as three-letter snacks!

See a glossary below for all things nutty and nut-free.


Now let’s move on to the figurative sense of nut — which also comes in various complicated shapes, sizes and meanings, just like its ancient botanical namesake, which apparently we’ve been scoffing and talking about since 875 AD. Employed over the centuries in both singular and plural form (and as an adjective as well as a noun), nut has been used to describe everything from male genitalia to a crazy idea or person, or even the way we feel about something or someone we love.

Word-Detective gives us a potted history of the figurative nut, explaining that “since nuts play such a large role in our daily life and diet…, it wasn’t long before we started using ‘nut’ in all sorts of non-literal, figurative senses. By around 1300, ‘nut’ meant anything inconsequential. Later on we reconsidered, and ‘nut’ was used to mean a difficult situation or problem (‘a tough nut to crack’). By the mid-1800s, we were using ‘nut’ to mean a person’s head, and around the same time we decided that someone not quite right in the old noggin was ‘off his nut’ or simply ‘nuts’.”

The Online Etymology Dictionary dates this crazy version of nuts back to 1846, suggesting that it arose from an earlier sense of being “nutts upon” — or “very fond of” — something or someone back in 1785, which in turn probably derived from nuts meaning “any source of pleasure” in the 1610s. It’s still true today: we’re nuts when we’re crazy, and yet we’re also nuts about people or things we love. It’s a fine line between insanity and fanaticism. But wait! While you might be nuts about the one you love, that pesky guy in the office is driving you nuts — and that doesn’t mean you’re nuts about him, or even that you’re off your rocker: he’s just being intensely annoying …

Isn’t this nuts?

The noun form of nut meaning a “crazy person” is attested from 1903, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. After a few decades such British nuts also came to be known as nutters (first attested in 1958); nut-case, an alternative form of nut or nutter, came a year later in 1959. Nut-job is a more recent version of nut-case, and StackExchange sheds some light on how that particular case became a job

Heading anatomically south from the brain, nut came to settle on another jocular male form (sorry, another form that’s jocular in meaning and male in jocks — whatever) in the early 20th century. Quite why it went from brains to balls is anyone’s guess, but I imagine it’s something to do with shape. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes amusingly how nuts’ connection with testicles “tended to nudge it toward taboo”, citing a couple of editorial directives as evidence: “On the N.B.C. network, it is forbidden to call any character a nut; you have to call him a screwball.” [New Yorker, Dec. 23, 1950]; and “Please eliminate the expression ‘nuts to you’ from Egbert’s speech.” [Request from the Hays Office regarding the script of The Bank Dick, 1940].” This desire for avoidance accounts for the euphemism nerts (c.1925).”

Word-Detective explains yet another meaning of nut, which seems to be confined to American shores. “‘Nut’ meaning “overhead,” “startup costs” or “basic expenses” turns out to be a bit older than I would have expected. The first citation in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang comes from 1909, in the context of a “nut” being the basic reserve of money a gambler needs to operate. Subsequent examples indicate that “nut” has also been used in show business, manufacturing, and both legal and criminal businesses of just about every description.The rationale for “nut” in this sense is uncertain, but it seems probable that this “nut” comes from the phrase “a tough nut to crack,” meaning something very difficult to attain, which a basic operating budget can certainly be. After all, only once the “nut” is “cracked” can the tasty meat within (actual income) be enjoyed.”


A nutty (and nut-free) glossary:

Nut:  (etymology): “hard seed,” Old English hnutu, from Proto-Germanic hnut (cognates: Old Norse hnot, Dutch noot, Old High German hnuz, German Nuss “nut”), from Proto-Indo-European kneu- “nut” (cognates: Latin nux). American English slang sense of “amount of money required for something” is first recorded 1912. The nut that goes onto a bolt is first recorded 1610s (used of other small mechanical pieces since early 15c.). Nuts and bolts “fundamentals” is from 1960. (On. Et. Dic.)

Drupe: A fleshy fruit with thin skin and a central stone containing the seed. Drupes are fruit with a fleshy outer coating enclosing a hard shell containing a seed: plums, cherries, almonds, walnuts, olives, and dates. From the Greek dryppa, meaning “tree-ripened”.

Legume: A seed, pod, or other edible part of a leguminous plant used as food.

Peanuts (also known as groundnuts, earthnuts, goobers, pinders, Manila nuts and monkey nuts): a type of pea or legume that grows underground.The oval seed of a South American plant.

Brazil nut: a large three-sided nut with an edible kernel, several of which grow inside a large woody capsule. Brazil nuts grow on a South American forest tree. Brazil nuts are seeds contained in a capsule or pod, which splits apart. In the United States Brazil nuts were once known by the epithet “nigger toes”.

Coconut: a drupe. The word “coconut” comes from the Spanish and Portuguese word coco, which means “monkey face”.

Pine nut: a seed. The edible seed of various pine trees.

Walnut: a drupe. Their name in Old English, walhnutu, meant “foreign nut”, from wealh, “foreign” (also the root for Wales). This was because they were introduced from Gaul and needed to be distinguished from the native hazelnut.

Horse chestnut: named they were fed to horses to help with respiratory disorders. The Turkish name, atkestanesi, also means “horse-chestnut” and probably derives from the Latin Castanea equina.

Conker: The hard shiny dark brown nut of a horse chestnut tree. The game “conkers” was first recorded in Newport, in the Isle of Wight, in 1848. The name may derive from “conquerors”, a game played by children for centuries that involved smashing live snails together, or from an East Anglian dialect term for snail shells (related to “conch” from the Greek konche).

Cashew: a seed of a drupe. Cashews are the seeds of the cashew drupe, a member of the poison-ivy family. The cashew’s seed lining contains a powerful irritant called anacardic acid.The botanical name Anacardium refers to the shape of the fruit, which looks like an inverted heart (ana “upwards” + kardion “heart”).

Pistachio: a seed. The edible pale green seed of an Asian tree.

Almond: a seed. The oval nut-like seed or kernel of the almond tree, growing in a woody shell.

*   *   *

Phrases using the word nut:

Off your nut

Hard/tough nut to crack

In a nutshell

A tough nut

Use a sledgehammer to crack a nut

*   *   *

Definitions from Oxford Dictionaries and an article in The Telegraph from 2011.

* The white hazelnut at the front is the only real nut in the picture.


3 thoughts on “Nuts: to be or not to be …

  1. Nasr Anaizi

    I just wanted to thank you for the effort you put in this illuminating & entertaining blog. I enjoyed immensely. From now on I will refer to “Seeds & Nuts” rather than just “Nuts” when I write about their nutritional value.

    Best wishes.

    Nasr Anaizi, PhD

  2. John Barker

    Haven’t time to get the exact references but having worked to keep people out of psychiatric facilities and with a keen interest in the history of the countryside, I’m confident I know exactly where the notion of being nutter comes from. At one time, people left cities and towns to go into the countryside to gather nuts and party in woods. Nutting was an occasion for camping out, letting their hair down, drinking and more. As a result of Enclose Acts, they were excluded from woods they once enjoyed. Keepers of nuts or nut keepers were employed, (much like gamekeepers), but it must have been short seasonal work. With the changes in land law, landowners and their agents such as keepers of nuts, were met with resistance by nutters. They were seen as anti-establishment, disobedient, defiant, nonconformists, agitators, noisy, immoral, strong-willed and in need of punishment, such as being imprisoned or even in the case of men, forced to be soldiers. Landowners were able to wield power to their advantage, not only as magistrates but in defining others and the language about them at the time. How we came to have the notion of nutter, seems pretty obvious with that historical background.


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