A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "old chestnut"?

September 29, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

What's an old chestnut? I tried asking some others; all I got in response is more old chestnuts.

SDStaff Dex replies:

Well, we're all agreed that an old chestnut is a stale joke.

Eric Partirdge in Origins (1983 edition) says the probable origin is eating roasted chestnuts at the fireside while listening to old stories. The word chestnut itself, he says, derives from Middle English chesten nut, and ultimately from Latin castaneo, a translation of the Greek kastanea, meaning "chestnut."  That helps, of course, a lot.

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable traces the origin to The Broken Sword, a forgotten melodrama by William Dimond (1816) in which one of the characters, Captain Xavier, is forever telling the same jokes, over and over, with slight variations. As he repeats a certain joke involving a tree, this time making it about a cork tree, Xavier is corrected by Pablo, who says, "A chestnut. I have heard you tell the joke twenty-seven times, and I am sure it was a chestnut."

Related Posts with Thumbnails
Staff Reports are written by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

Recent Additions:

A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Staff Report by SDStaff Mac, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Staff Report by SDStaff Dogster, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
A Straight Dope Staff Report by SDStaff Ian, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Staff Report by SDStaff Ian, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Staff Report by SDStaff Ian, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
A Straight Dope Staff Report by SDStaff Melis, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Send questions for Cecil Adams to: cecil@chicagoreader.com

Send comments about this website to: webmaster@straightdope.com

Terms of Use / Privacy Policy

Advertise on the Straight Dope! Your direct line to thou- sands of the smartest, hippest people on the planet, plus a few total dipsticks.

Publishers - interested in subscribing to the Straight Dope? Write to: sdsubscriptions@chicagoreader.com.

Copyright © 2017 Sun-Times Media, LLC.