Monday, January 01, 2007

Roasting Chestnuts

The Cat’s Paw by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1802 - 1873

Q. Where did the phrase “to pull chestnuts from the fire” come from?
Brian/Paradise, MI

Q. Why is an old story called a chestnut?
Alice/Suttons Bay, MI

See, my working theory is that all of us overdosed these last few weeks on syrupy versions of Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire. How else to account for an outbreak of chestnut questions?

Let’s start with the origins of the word chestnut. It was a combination of the Old French name for a particular tree, chesteine (from the Greek kastanea), plus the English word nut. It was named after a place, either Kastanaia, a city of Pontus, or Castana in Thessaly.

"To pull chestnuts from the fire" means to do someone’s dirty work for him. The source (mentioned by Brewer in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable) is the fable of The Monkey and the Cat’s Paws. In this story, a monkey convinces a naive cat to pull chestnuts from a hot fire. As the cat scoops the chestnuts from the fire one by one, burning his paw in the process, the monkey eagerly gobbles them up, leaving none for the cat.

Chestnut--a story told so often that it has become predictable, boring, and trite--is given the origin unknown label by the Oxford English Dictionary. However, both Brewer and Linda and Roger Flavell’s The Dictionary of Idioms and their Origins refer to Boston actor William Warren as the instigator of this term.

Warren had played the part of Pablo in William Dillon’s play, The Broken Sword. One of the characters in the play has the annoying habit of retelling the same old stories and jokes. Pablo interrupts him on one occasion as he begins the story of a cork tree with these words: “A chestnut. I should know as well as you, having heard you tell the tale these twenty-seven times, and I'm sure it was a chestnut.”

Warren was at a dinner party one evening when a fellow guest launched into a tedious story, and the actor whispered in a stage voice, “A chestnut. I have heard you tell the tale these twenty-seven times.” The guests roared with laughter, and the story spread.

SIDEBAR: How to roast chestnuts

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