Posted by: episystechpubs | June 11, 2018

Editor’s Corner: Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

If you have a long-winded friend or family member, you’re probably familiar with the concept of a “chestnut” (or “old chestnut”), a story that has become stale with repetition.

Here is the relevant definition from Merriam-Webster:

  • chestnut: an old usually stale joke or story; something (as a musical piece or a saying) repeated to the point of staleness

And here’s a sample sentence (also from Merriam-Webster): “Thursday’s philharmonic program … contained a couple of … old chestnuts that could have been lent interest only by brilliant performances.” — Winthrop Sargeant

Why are stale stories called “chestnuts”?

My first guess was that chestnut trees are especially long-lived, but that isn’t the case. According to Virginia Tech’s Big Tree Program, the American chestnut has an average lifespan of 100 years. That’s nothing compared to the world’s oldest trees: the giant sequoia (3,266 years), the Patagonian cypress (3,639 years), or the bristlecone pine (4,844 years).

As it turns out, the connection between stale stories and chestnut trees is an arbitrary one.

In the 1816 British play Broken Sword, by William Dimond, one of the characters (Captain Zavier) likes to repeat self-aggrandizing tall tales. During one story involving a cork tree, another character (Pablo) corrects him: “A chestnut, captain. … I should know as well as you, having heard you tell the tale 27 times.”

The play was popular in England and the United States, and this sense of the word chestnut appeared in print in America in the 1880s. A Boston comedian named William Warren may have helped spread the term with a dinner party quip.

Ben Ritter | Technical Editor | Symitar®
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