[Ads-l] Antedating "Chestnut" - an old joke or story

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Thu Jan 10 11:38:09 UTC 2019

I think William Dimond's play "The Broken Sword, or Torrent in the Valley" is indeed the origin of this sense of chestnut, as I noted in several comments with quotations at "Oxford Etymologist" in 2009* (agreeing with the suggestion in OED, which omits the line of the Captian agreeing that in the oft-repeated story it was a chestnut, then; also, later, cf. Green's.)

There are even more editions and performances and theater world links than I listed there, many in several US cities (and also an undated adaptation in Notre Dame, IN).

I haven't yet checked the French play (apparently available in a multi-volume work at HathiTrust), also performed in 1816, of which it is an adaptation.




From: American Dialect Society <...> on behalf of Peter Reitan <...>
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Subject: [ADS-L] Antedating "Chestnut" - an old joke or story

"Chestnut" is a few years older than the earliest citation I have seen elsewhere, which was 1880.

"Chestnut" dates to at least 1876, when it was defined with almost precisely its current meaning.

"“Chestnut” means “old story,” or “old joke.” We don’t mean the vegetable chestnut, but the technical, ejaculatory one."

The Republican Journal (Belfast, Maine), May 25, 1876, page 2.

The next earliest examples start to appear beginning three years later.  Most examples related to minstrel acts telling bad jokes, but "chestnuts" or "old chestnuts" could also refer to old songs or familiar plays.

The word seems to have picked up steam after a new joke went viral in 1884:

"Jenny – Why are old jokes called chestnuts? Don’t know, unless it is because they are bad-in-age. Boston Folio."

Detroit Free Press, September 11, 1884, page 8.

The popularity of the joke and the newly widespread word led to a brief fad of carrying "chestnut bells" that people would ring, obnoxiously, when someone started telling an old or familiar joke or story.

I also found an earlier purported explanation of the origin of the word, which appeared before the joke went viral, unlike the several other explanations from the period I've seen elsewhere which all appeared between a year or three years after the viral joke.

This earliest explanation claims (I don't believe it) that the expression started in St. Louis where one newspaper that used lots of old jokes was located on Chestnut Street (which is true, I checked).  A rival paper claimed that the other paper was routinely called the "Old Chestnut" because of its location (no evidence of that), and old jokes were called "Old Chestnuts" because they came from the other paper.  This explanation dates to 1881.

Grammarphobia has a good post that goes through the other explanations from the period.

One of the explanations claimed that it happened in 1867 with a touring stage troupe performing a particular play with a funny line about a chestnut tree that comes up as one of the characters is retelling an old story but saying cork tree, instead of chestnut this time - "Chestnut!"

Anyways, the story names four people who were present at the time, and I was able to find an advertisement for a performance of that play, in the state where he said it happened, that involved all of those particular performers in 1869, which seems close, and may lend a bit of credence to his story.  Another person told a similar story, about the same play, but said it happened years after the first known example of the word.

The "bad in age"/badinage pun has its own long history dating to the 1820s, as does a prototypical bad pun about the differences between a chestnut horse and a horse chestnut which came from the House of Commons in the 18-aughts.

I have a post about it all here:

The American Dialect Society - https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=http-3A__www.americandialect.org&d=DwIGaQ&c=imBPVzF25OnBgGmVOlcsiEgHoG1i6YHLR0Sj_gZ4adc&r=uUVa-8oDL2EzfbuMuowoUadHHcJ7pjul6iFkS5Pd--8&m=cpUSUrCi4ahRSEqLX86ZR5UfnA5eFuLQGxWGsddggz8&s=qRtiCFc2cMO0zYEoNW95FxSfYu-ZbwTv--AzYQBbcOc&e=

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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