Q From Gabbi Cahane, London: Any idea where the phrase old chestnut comes from? It’s the subject of an office debate.
A I can tentatively give you an answer, one that is described by the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary as plausible, which seems to be about as good as we’re ever going to get.
It is said to go back to an exchange between the characters in a play by William Dimond, first performed at the Royal Covent Garden Theatre, London, on 7 October 1816. It had the title of The Broken Sword; or, The Torrent of the Valley, and was further described as “A Melo-Drama in 2 Acts, adapted from the French” and also “a grand melo-drama: interspersed with songs, choruses, &c”. The show became popular, to judge from contemporary reports, and was toured and revived in the following decades.
Let a writer for the Daily Herald in Delphos, Ohio, take up the story, in a piece in the issue dated 23 April 1896, which said the play was “long forgotten”:
There were two characters in it — one a Captain Zavier and the other the comedy part of Pablo. The captain is a sort of Baron Munchausen, and in telling of his exploits says, “I entered the woods of Colloway, when suddenly from the thick boughs of a cork tree” — Pablo interrupts him with the words, “A chestnut, captain; a chestnut.” “Bah!” replies the captain. “Booby. I say a cork tree.” “A chestnut,” reiterates Pablo. “I should know as well as you, having heard you tell the tale 27 times.”
This sounds reasonable enough as the source, but there are some loose ends. This sense of chestnut, for a joke or story that has become stale and wearisome through constant repetition, isn’t recorded until 1880. Where had it been all that time, if the source was the play? The word in this sense was claimed by British writers in the 1880s to have originally been American, though it became well known in Britain and according to the OED many stories about its supposed origin circulated in 1886-7. But the play was certainly originally British (Dimond was born in Bath and at the time was managing theatres in Bath and Bristol).
The latter point is easily cleared up, because the play became as popular in the USA for a while as it had been in Britain. The same newspaper report claims that the intermediary was a Boston comedian named William Warren, who had often played the part of Pablo:
He was at a ‘stag’ dinner when one of the gentlemen present told a story of doubtful age and originality. ‘A chestnut,’ murmured Mr. Warren, quoting from the play. ‘I have heard you tell the tale these 27 times.’ The application of the line pleased the rest of the table, and when the party broke up each helped to spread the story and Mr. Warren’s commentary.”
You may take this with as large a pinch of salt as you wish, though a similar story, attributing it to the same person, is given in the current edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Even if it wasn’t William Warren, it’s not hard to see how somebody else familiar with the play could have made the same quip.
As the joke could have been made at any time the play was still known, and as it probably circulated orally for a long time before it was first written down, the long gap between the play’s first performance and its first recorded use isn’t surprising.
The old in old chestnut is merely an elaboration for emphasis — another form is hoary old chestnut — both of which seem to have come along a good deal later.
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