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Kelsey’s nuts

Q From Shane: Where does the expression deader than Kelsey’s nuts come from and what does it mean?

A I’m told it’s an expression that former US President Richard Nixon was rather fond of using. Like other Americans before and since, he meant by it that something was unquestionably and permanently defunct. You might hear somebody say “The battery’s deader than Kelsey’s nuts”, or “His chances of surviving the election are deader than Kelsey’s nuts”.

That takes care of the meaning, but who or what was Kelsey and what was so special about those nuts? He turns out to have been a real person, John Kelsey, one of the pioneers of car manufacture in the USA. With the encouragement of Henry Ford, he set up the Kelsey Wheel Company in 1910. By 1913 this was based in Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit. To start with, he manufactured the wooden wheels that were then state of the art, but later moved into making wire-spoke wheels and later steel wheels. As Kelsey-Hayes Canada Ltd, the company still exists.

The saying refers to the proverbially secure attachment provided by the nuts and bolts on the wheels that Kelsey’s company made. In the view of the public, nothing could be fixed more tightly. And the obvious anatomical innuendoes in those nuts made the saying just a little naughty. Though some examples are recorded from the 1930s, the phrase began to become more widely known in the 1950s. Early on, it appeared as “tighter than Kelsey’s nuts” to mean a person who was stingy or mean, and is also recorded in the form “as safe as Kelsey’s nuts”, meaning very safe.

By the early 1960s, it had evolved away from these fairly obvious formations to the imaginative and metaphorical phrase still used today. It would appear to have been a close parallel to — perhaps borrowed from — the much older as dead as a doornail.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 21 Jun. 2003

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Last modified: 21 June 2003.