The term old chestnut denotes a joke, story or subject that has become tedious and uninteresting through constant repetition.
Here, the adjective old is simply an intensifier of the noun. The figurative use of chestnut originated in American-English theatrical slang. Diary of a Daly Débutante: being passages from the journal of a member of Augustin Daly’s famous company of players (New York, 1910), by Dora Knowlton Thompson Ranous (1859-1916), contains the following:
27th May 1880:
The Governor announced to a small group of astonished young ladies that last autumn he had heard in New York a charming, catchy song that had pleased him immensely […]. The idea had struck him that it would be a beautiful thing to introduce in the Middy, to be sung with a little dance […]. When he said that the song was Nancy Lee we girls nearly fainted! […]
Really, I thought we should choke with laughter and dismay. Think of doing that awful old Nancy Lee—such a chestnut!—in a romantic Portuguese opera, and following it up with that hoppy, romping dance!
In his book about the English actor John Lawrence Toole (1830-1906), Reminiscences of J. L. Toole related by himself, and chronicled by Joseph Hatton (London, 1889), the English novelist and journalist Joseph Hatton (1841-1907) wrote:
In America they call an old story a “chestnut.”
He explained in a footnote:
Mr. Joseph Jefferson (“Rip Van Winkle”) has recently explained the origin of the word “chestnut” as applied to an old story, attributing its authorship to Mr. William Warren, the well-known American comedian.
“There is a melodrama,” says Mr. Jefferson, “but little known to the present generation, written by William Dillon, and called The Broken Sword. There are 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 these twenty-seven times.’ William Warren, who had often played the part of Pablo, was at a stage-dinner a few years ago, 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 twenty-seven times.’ The application of the lines pleased the rest of the table, and when the party broke up each helped to spread the story and Mr. Warren’s commentary. And that,” says Mr. Jefferson, “is what I really believe to be the origin of the word ‘chestnut.’”
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) of 13th April 1885 had published a different version of the story (Martin Hanley was a theatre manager):
Origin of the Term Chestnut.
Interview with M. W. Hanley.
In 1867 I was traveling through this State, putting an old play called “The Broken Sword,” on the stage with Marietta Ravel as leading lady. In the second act an old man stands in the center of the stage telling the story of the murder of the dumb boy. John Sanford, my comedian, sits on a low stool at the left, interrupting the old man. The old man makes frequent reference to a hickory tree. Every time he says hickory the comedian gets off his stool and says: “No, chestnut; I tell you, chestnut,” till the old man is exhausted. After the performance in Rochester P. Connelly, dead now, was in one of the dressing-rooms with others of the company, and he started to get off a funny story. Everybody interrupted with shouts of “Chestnut!” It clung to the company all the season, and, of course, was soon caught by the profession. That’s the only true origin of it.”
Both Joseph Jefferson and Martin Hanley were referring to the following exchange in The Broken Sword, A Grand Melo-Drama, interspersed with songs, chorusses, etc., first published in 1816, by the English playwright William Dimond (circa 1780-1837):
– Captain Zavior. At the dawn of the fourth day’s journey, I entered the wood of Collares, when suddenly from the thick boughs of a cork tree——
– Pablo. (Jumping up.) A chesnut [sic], Captain, a chesnut.
– Captain Zavior. Bah! you booby, I say, a cork.
– Pablo. And I swear, a chesnut—Captain! this is the twenty-seventh time I have heard you relate this story, and you invariably said, a chesnut, till now.
– Captain Zavior. Did I? Well, a chesnut be it then.
This play was first performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, on 7th October 1816 and was so well received that The European Magazine, and London Review for that month predicted: “it will doubtless become even more of a favorite than any of the most popular productions of this species of entertainment”. Indeed, it was often reprinted until at least 1850, and The Musical World (London) of 9th May 1857, reviewing one of its performances in Plymouth, called it “the favourite old melodrama”. The play was also popular in the USA; I have discovered in particular that Marietta Ravel, mentioned by Martin Hanley, appeared in The Broken Sword on 20th June 1873 at the Opera House, Rochester, New York.
There are minor inaccuracies in the explanations given by Joseph Jefferson and Martin Hanley: the former uses Dillon for Dimond, the latter hickory tree for cork tree. But, more importantly, these explanations seem to be mutually exclusive: Jefferson says that William Warren made the bon mot during a dinner, Hanley mentions several actors shouting “Chestnut!” in a dressing-room. However, this might be a superficial contradiction: it is probable that various situations gave actors familiar with The Broken Sword opportunities to apply the word chestnut to unoriginal jokes or stories.
It is also probable that this figurative use was confined to the theatrical profession for several years before it gained wider currency.
Other words or phrases of theatrical origin:
to be decent (sufficiently clothed to see visitors)
Box and Cox
Hamlet without the Prince
to play to the gallery
to steal someone’s thunder
bums on seats
In journalistic slang, marronnier, literally, chestnut tree, denotes a hackneyed subject which reappears regularly.—British-English synonym: hardy annual.
This use of marronnier might simply have originally referred to the blossoming of the chestnut trees in spring seen as a predictable, unoriginal piece of information. But, according to Bernard Voyenne in Glossaire des termes de presse (Centre de formation des journalistes, 1967):
This name comes from the famous pink chestnut tree of Cours-la-Reine in Paris, planted on the tomb of the Swiss guards killed on 20th June 1792, and which blossoms, it is said, every year exactly on the first day of spring, a fact that always led to a brief article marking the occasion.
Ce nom lui vient du célèbre marronnier rose du Cours-la-Reine à Paris, planté sur la tombe des Gardes suisses tués le 20 juin 1792 et qui fleurit, paraît-il, chaque année exactement le premier jour du printemps, fait qui donnait toujours lieu à un billet de circonstance.
In fact, the Swiss guards were not killed on 20th June 1792 according to Jack Richard Censer and Lynn Avery Hunt in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001):
On 10 August 1792 leaders of the local neighborhood governments of Paris (called ‘sections’) organized an insurrection and attacked the Tuileries palace, where the king resided. The king and his family had to escape into the meeting room of the Legislative Assembly. The Swiss guards of the king fired on the Parisian National Guardsmen and the armed insurgents from the sections. When the Swiss laid down their arms on command from Louis XVI, they were massacred, their bodies mutilated and stripped of every stitch of clothing. Some 600 Swiss soldiers died in the bloodbath.