While you're digging in your little nut cup at the New Year's Feast, consider this:
The only thing simple about a nut is its name.
Was there ever a word so bristling with meanings, so shimmering with nuances, so magnetic to slang-makers, so mysteriously shrouded in ambiguities that it signifies both crazy and clever, both loutish and charming, and a certain type of Australian as well?
Was there ever a word so versatile that, besides standing for its original namesake ("a dry, hard fruit that does not split open at maturity to release its single seed"), it also turns up in clockmaking, crossbowing, carpentry, printing and cooking, in pottery, violin making and male anatomy (obs., as the Oxford English Dictionary warns) and show business, ships' anchors and the classification of coal lumps?
"Nuts!" was all General McAuliffe had to shout as Bastogne when the Germans called for his surrender. The word made him famous. (Curiously, another general, Napoleon's staunch Cambronne, also won immortality with a single word at Waterloo, but that is not a very nice word, and in fact some people even today insist on referring to it as the most de Cambronne.)
What would the venerable scholar of the Erfurt Glossary who first wrote the word "hnutu" in 875 have made out of the sight of Ray Bolger in drag screeching. "I'm Charley's nut from Brazil -- where the aunts come from!"
What a word. I tell you.
In the '20s it was fashionable to say "Nertz," a favorite expression of Krazy Kat. No it wasn't. It was Ignatius Mouse.
My aunt Plowden, one of my maiden aunts, used to crack all her walnuts and collect the meats beside her plate at Thanksgiving, and then eat them all at once. I always wondered if this had something to do with her being a maiden aunt.
Peanuts are not nuts, as everyone knows. They are legumes. Also Brazil nuts are not nuts, but seeds. Also coconuts are not nuts but drupes. And have nothing to do with cocoa, either.
I assume the reason why the nut if often a euphemism for the head in one way or another -- you can be hit on the nut, or noddle, or noggin, and you can be a nut case, or nutty, or headed for the nuthouse -- is that when you open a walnut or chestunt in particular it looks just a little bit like a miniature human skull with brains residing inside.
Indeed, Partridge comes right out and gives "the head" as its leading definition for the word, followed by 12 more basic slang meanings. The OED gives 21 definitions filling four closely printed columns, and this doesn't even count the combining words like nutbrown.
Did you know that the reason Connecticut is called the Nutmeg State (according to the guy in the next seat) is that Early American peddlers used to carve wooden balls to look like nutmegs and sell them dearly? Presumably the peddlers all came from Connecticut.
List of nuts: acorn, almond, beechnut, betel nut, bladdernut, Brazil nut, buckeye, candlenut, cashew, chestnut, chinquapin, coconut, cola nut, ginkgo nut, hazelnut, hickory nut, horse chestnut, ivory nut, litchi nut, macadamia, monkey-puzzle nut, nut grass, nutmeg, peanut, pecan, pine nut, pistachio, walnut, water chinquapin, witch hazelnut.
There are 7,000 peanut growers in Oklahoma alone. We eat 500,00 tons of peanut butter a year, and a quarter of it comes from Oklahoma. It was supposed to have been invented in 1880 by a St. Louis physician, but of course people have been grinding up peanuts ever since they learned to rub two stones together.
Each and every peanut contains protein, fat, calcium, phosphorus, iron, niacin, riboflavin, thiamine and, as we know, calories.
And then there was the lost Art of Walnut Shell Carving.
In the '30s there used to be signs to read along the highways, modest little things, this being before the discovery of billboard power, and we would always read them all, from the Burma Shave signs spaced one after the other so you could chant them -- "In the days . . . Of the Caesars . . . They Pulled Whiskers . . . Out with tweezers . . . Burma Shave" -- to the historical markers.
There were also signs with odd bits of information placed in the pastures as a public service of some sort. One of these, near Cooperstown, I think, said that the art of carving walnut shells was a Lost Art.
That was all it said. I never got over it.
Filberts and hazelnuts are among the oldest nuts, having contributed to the survival of the humans and rodent races since the glaciers melted. Filberts are the subject of a rather elaborate double euphemism that sportswriters favored a few years ago. When you got tired of calling someone a hockey nut, it was considered colorful to call him a hockey filbert.
You know, you never see any butternuts, anymore. We had a butternut tree beside the manure pile out back at the barn, and my father came after me every fall to get a bunch of them together so Wanda the cook could make a butternut cake, which he remembered from his childhood.
Butternuts have a sticky green cover that stains your hands and smells sour. You have to spread the nuts across the attic floor all winter to age them. And then you have to crack them.
"What you need is an iron plate with a half-inch hole in it, and you put the nut in there endwise and hit it with a hammer," my father would say earnestly, as though he really expected me to hunt up, or maybe forge, an iron plate with a half-inch hole in it.
Butternuts were the devil to crack You didn't crack them; you conquered them. Each individual nut was an adventure. And that's not counting the retrieval of the meat, concealed among the beautiful violin-scroll whorls of the inner shell.
One year I got as far as collection a bushel of butternuts and spreading them in the garage attic, but they slipped my mind, or did I go off to Deerfield that year? Anyway, the squirrels got them.
I still haven't had a butternut cake.