By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.
I just recently published a book entitled Playing Fast and Loose: Match Wits with the Author and Guess the Origin of Common Idioms. My book invites the reader to guess the correct origin of common idioms. For each idiom, I constructed three scenarios. One scenario contains a short description of the likely origin of the phrase with some selected historical context that illustrates its usage. The other two scenarios also present short vignettes with factually correct historical citations; however, these two descriptions are not considered the likely origin of the phrase. Can you guess the origin of the common phrase “in a nutshell”? Read the three scenarios below and try to select the one that is commonly considered the origin of this term. The answer is below. (Note: Dr. Smith’s print and ebook can be ordered through Amazon.com)
Definition: to say or write something concisely
Would you think of putting an entire book in a nutshell? Apparently, Cicero, the famous Roman orator, did; he remarked that the entire Iliad of Homer could be copied entirely on a small enough piece of parchment to be stuffed “in a nutshell.” This anecdote is recorded in the Natural History of Pliny (published around 70 A.D.), one of the first encyclopedias. Books, letters, and government documents in the ancient world were written on scrolls of parchment paper. Cicero’s comment is certainly metaphoric, cautioning his fellow Romans about the limits of ancient wisdom. Many later readers, however, decided to test its literal truth. Ebenezer Brewer, in his 1899 Reader’s Handbook, relates the following story: “Huet, Bishop of Avranches, demonstrated the possibility of this being the case by writing eighty lines of the Iliad on the space occupied by one line of this dictionary, so that the whole Iliad might be got into about two-thirds of a single page.” Peter Bales, a Chancery clerk in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, was not to be outdone: “He wrote out, in 1590, the whole Bible, and enclosed his manuscript in a walnut shell [which] contained as many leaves as an ordinary Bible, but the size of the leaves was reduced, and the paper was as thin as possible.” Pliny was covered by lava in the 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius. His Natural History, which covered 170 volumes, probably could not be stuffed “in a nutshell” but his record of Cicero’s comment is still widely used.
All the literal attempts to stuff manuscripts “in a nutshell” actually came after Shakespeare introduced this term in Hamlet. In Act 2, Scene 2, Claudius is disturbed and suspicious of Hamlet’s recent erratic behavior (no doubt due to Hamlet’s seeing the ghost of his father who claimed that Claudius poisoned him). Claudius sends two of Hamlet’s friends, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, to check on Hamlet. Hamlet is beside himself since he is not sure if he is seeing things, going mad, or trying to avenge father’s death.
Ham. Let me question more in particular: what have you my good friends, deserved at the hands of Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?
Guil. Prison, my lord?
Ham. Denmark’s a prison.
Ros. Then is the world one.
Ham. A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons; Denmarke being one o’ th’ worst.
Ros. We thinke not so my lord. Ham. Why then ‘tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.
Ros. Why then your ambition makes it one: ‘tis too narrow for your minde.
Ham. O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count my selfe a king of infinite space; were it not that I have bad dreames.
Those bad dreams “in a nutshell” have led centuries of readers, including Freud, to analyze and interpret Hamlet’s character and actions. This attention to the play contributed to the widespread use of this phrase.
Remember those elementary chemistry sets that were children’s Christmas presents? This phrase actually originated in the immensely successful 19th century manual for children by Friedrich Christian Accum. First published in London in 1817, Chemical Amusement, a Series of Curious and Instructive Experiments in Chemistry Which Are Easily Performed and Unattended by Danger gave careful instructions for experiments that any child could follow. Accum himself was a famous chemist. His research into gas lighting led to his association with the Gas Light and Coke Company, the first to supply gas lighting to public and private areas in London. Experiment 87 was entitled “To melt a coin in a nutshell.” The directions were as follows:
Take three parts of nitre, freed from its water of crystallisation, one part of sulphur, and one of very fine dry saw-dust, and rub them intimately together. If a portion of this powder be pressed down in a walnut-shell, and a small silver or copper coin, rolled up, be laid upon the powder in the shell, and the nut-shell be afterwards filled and heaped up with more powder, which should be pressed down close, and the powder be then set on fire by an ignited body, the coin will be found melted in a mass when the combustion has been completed, whilst the nutshell will be only blackened. Rationale.—This powder is in fact a chemical flux, but its chief action depends on the sulphur, which unites, partly, to the potash of the nitre; and the alcaline sulphuret thus produced, acts upon the metal, and forms with it a metallic sulphuret.
Generations of children not only melted coins in the nutshell, but also tried all kinds of other objects with varying degrees of success. However, “in a nutshell” became a playful expression for the limits of containment and spread throughout England and America.
Although I love Shakespeare and chemistry sets, I give credit to Pliny for the original of this phrase. Peter Bales, by the way, did actually fit his written version of the Bible into that walnut shell.
Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS (www.testprepexperts.com ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at email@example.com.