What’s a nice interjection like nuts! doing in a place like Strong Language, home of brazen epithets and unexpurgated swears? Nuts: such a mild word, so fusty and old-fashioned, so suitable for children’s tender ears.
Well, it wasn’t always that way. For several decades in the middle of the 20th century, nuts and its facetious cousin nerts were deemed so inappropriate that they were forbidden—along with, but not limited to, whore, SOB, damn, hell, fanny, and slut—in the scripts of Hollywood movies. (Needless to say, fuck and shit were too scandalous to merit mention.) It took a famous World War II battle, and the gradual loosening of the censorious rules known as the Motion Picture Production Code, to bring nuts, nerts, and nuts to you into semi-respectability and finally to quaintness.
A longish book could be written about polysemous nut, which has 22 definitions in the OED and whose colloquial senses take up seven pages in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS). The noun meaning “the fruit of certain trees and shrubs” has been in the lexicon since Old English; the noun meaning “a mechanical piece that goes onto a bolt” goes back to the 1610s. (But the idiom nuts and bolts—”the basics”—was first documented only in 1947.) Nut’s slang meanings have included “something pleasant” (1785, in Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue), “something unpleasant” (1919), “the head” (1841, probably shortened from coconut), “the pancreas” (1816), “a character or fellow” (1856), “a crazy person” (1908), “an enthusiast” (1915), and “the amount of money required for a venture” (1909). Journalists are familiar with nut graf, the paragraph that contains a story’s “kernel.”
But the nut that troubled 20th-century bluenoses was, of course, testicular nut, a sense first documented in the United States around 1863. (The Brits had been using the equivalent nutmeg[s] since the late 1600s, but it’s unclear how much currency that usage had in America.)
The interjection Nuts! is “originally and chiefly U.S.,” according to the OED, which gives this definition: “Expressing incredulity, rejection, etc.: ‘nonsense!’ ‘rubbish!’” The rough 2021 equivalent might be Bullshit!
Nuts! first appeared in print in 1910 in Adventure magazine:
“‘Nuts!’ he said in deep scorn. ‘This regiment won the battle!’”
We can safely assume that Adventure’s readers recognized the interjection and probably had used it themselves for some time before 1910. Indeed, HDAS has a 1958 citation for Nuts! that refers back to the 1890s:
(You’re going to bring up Balls! and Bollocks! now, aren’t you? Those British equivalents—both anatomically and lexically—of Nuts! first appeared at least 30 years after Nuts! The OED gives 1938 date for the first citation of Balls! to mean “damn, blast,” and 1940 for the first citation for Bollocks!—specifically, “Sod & bollocks.”)
The extended exclamation Nuts to you could plausibly mean bullshit!, but it usually connotes something closer to Screw you or Fuck off. The phrase first appeared in print—“Aw, hell! Nuts to you!”—in the American writer Joseph Moncure March’s book-length narrative poem about a washed-up boxer, The Set-Up, which was published in 1928.*
In his 1946 comic novel Joy in the Morning, P.G. Wodehouse put the expression in the mouth of his cheerfully dim hero Bertie Wooster:
“If you think I’ve got the force of character to come back with a nolle prosequi—”
“With a what?”
“One of Jeeves’ gags. It means roughly ‘Nuts to you!”’
(Nolle prosequi is legal Latin for “to be unwilling to pursue.”)
And in his 1948 story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” J.D. Salinger gives us the following exchange between two highball-swigging former college roommates:
“Hey, how ’bout throwing me a cigarette?”
“I can’t reach ’em,” Mary Jane said.
“Nuts to you.” Eloise looked up at the ceiling again.
Perhaps because of the gonadal suggestion, or maybe just because people like to have fun with language, a minced variant of nuts—nerts—began appearing in the U.S. in the 1920s. Nerts could mean “crazy,” like nuts did and does, but it could also express annoyance in a facetious way that softened the vulgarity.
No such fine distinctions mattered to the Motion Picture Production Code. This set of industry guidelines for self-censorship had been drafted in 1930, after a series of violent and/or risqué films and a number of Hollywood scandals set off a wave of pearl-clutching. The U.S. Supreme Court had unanimously decided in 1915 that free speech protections didn’t apply to motion pictures, which at the time were silent. Accordingly, when talking pictures began their dominance several states instituted movie-censorship boards. This was a problem for movie studios, which would have to make different versions of films for different locales. Instead, they agreed to self-regulate.
The Production Code languished for a few years but finally began to be strictly applied in 1934, and it would remain in force until the advent of the ratings system, in 1968. Although it was popularly known as the Hays Code, after Will H. Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America from 1922 to 1945, its true enforcer was the devoutly Catholic Joseph Ignatius Breen, whom Hays appointed as administrator. After his death in 1965, Variety wrote that Breen enforced the Code “with a potent mix of missionary zeal and administrative tenacity.”
The Code outlawed nudity, depictions of crime, “scenes of passion,” “sex perversion,” “miscegenation (sex relationships between the races),” certain costumes, certain dances, and many other perceived indecencies. It distinguished among “vulgarity” (“low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects”), “obscenity” (unspecified; forbidden), and “profanity.” For the first five years of the Code’s existence, only “God, Lord, Jesus, Christ—unless used reverently—Hell, S.O.B., damn, Gawd), or other profane or vulgar expressions” were on the Profanity list. Filmmakers, naturally enough, tested the limits. Breen fought back. To take one relevant example: On February 21, 1935, Breen wrote to a studio executive about his “concern” with “the anti-social element” in some movies. After enumerating many no-no’s (flaunting of weapons, excessive brutality, suicide, et al.), he concluded with this passage:
With regard to the use of the word “nuts” in pictures, please note:
(1) The word “nuts” when used to characterize a person as crazy is acceptable. In other words, the expressions, “You’re nuts”; “He’s nuts”; or “He’s a nut” may be used.
(2) The use of the word “nuts” as an exclamation should not be used, as in the case of “Aw, nuts”, or “Nuts to you”, etc.
Got that? “Crazy” nuts: kosher. Exclamatory nuts: verboten.
There had indeed been a lot of nuts in the movies by that point. In It Happened One Night (1934), Clark Gable says to Claudette Colbert in exasperation: “Aw, nuts! You’re just like your old man! Once a plumber’s daughter, always a plumber’s daughter!” And in Design for Living (1933), Ernst Lubitsch’s sly depiction of a quirky ménage-à-trois, Miriam Hopkins exclaims “Aw, nuts!” two minutes before Fredric March solemnly chides Gary Cooper about using the same expression.
As a result of all this nuttery, the revision of the Code issued in November 1939—two months before Clark Gable would shock audiences by not giving a damn in Gone with the Wind—was far more explicit about explicitness.
Both nuts and nerts were now off limits. (And, yes, also nancy, along with fairy and pansy, which all had the same homophobic import.)
Still, filmmakers kept trying, and failing, to insert nuts into movies. The Hays Office nixed nuts to you in The Bank Dick (1940) and in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946; link is paywalled), although the Three Stooges got away with titling a 1938 short film Mutts to You. (The plot had the fellows running a dog-grooming business.)
The profanity walls would come tumbling down for good in the 1960s, but nuts got an early reprieve thanks to a well-traveled story of American defiance against the Nazis.
In December 1944, during the worst of a brutal winter, Allied forces were losing the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. They were outnumbered 2.5 to 1 by the Germans; the field hospital in the town of Bastogne was overrun. On the morning of December 22, four German soldiers carried a note from their general, offering to let the Americans surrender honorably. The note worked its way up the chain of command to Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe, who was roused from sleep. “Us surrender?” he reportedly responded. “Aw, nuts!” (In other versions of the story McAuliffe said simply “Nuts!”) Not knowing what to say in his reply to the Germans, McAuliffe asked for suggestions. From the Today in History blog:
Lt. General Harry Kinnard spoke up, saying, “That first remark of yours would be hard to beat”. McAuliffe said, “What do you mean?” and Kinnard replied “Sir, you said ‘Nuts’.” They all agreed, and McAuliffe wrote his reply. “To the German Commander, “Nuts!” The American Commander.”
Joseph H. “Bud” Harper was the American army officer who delivered the reply, with medic Ernie Premetz acting as translator.
Confused by the American slang, Henke asked “What does that mean?” Harper said to Premetz “You can tell them to take a flying shit.” The medic, knowing he had to convey the intent of the message, translated as “Du kannst zum Teufel gehen”. You can go to hell.
When the encounter was included in Battleground, a 1949 film from MGM about the siege of Bastogne, there was no way around the essential word—censors be, well, damned.
That may have been the turning point for nuts and nuts to you, which by now are so bleached of offensiveness that they appear in newspaper headlines, brand names, and the titles of children’s picture books.
As for nerts or nertz, it’s even more domesticated. Nertz has been a popular card game—a sort of multiplayer solitaire—since the early 1940s. (You may know it as Pounce or Racing Demon.) And in January 2021 a digital version, Nerts!, was launched for Windows, Mac, and Linux devices. Ars Technica dubbed it the best new card game of the still-young year.
Still, it’s worth recalling that a four-letter N-word was once a “rude dismissal” with an “ulterior meaning,” as the late editor and naughty-word collector Hugh Rawson put it in his 1989 book Wicked Words. As proof, Rawson cites this limerick collected by the historian Ray Allen Billington:
A woman’s leader named Stutz
Is known to have plenty of guts
When asked what she’d need
To be totally freed
She snarled at her questioner, “Nuts.”
My thanks to Ben Zimmer, Kory Stamper, Ben Yagoda, Mike J, and everyone on Twitter who contributed information and memories about nuts.
* Fun fact: The Set-Up is one of a handful of narrative poems to be made into movies (Gunga Din and The Charge of the Light Brigade are two others). The Set-Up, a 1949 film noir directed by Robert Wise, stars Robert Ryan as the boxer and is well worth seeking out.
“Oh, nuts!” as an interjection comes up in Google Books at least as early as 1870, and seems fairly innocuous.
A really clever German translator would have rendered McAuliffe’s “Nuts!” as “Goetz von Berlichingen!” That was the name of a German imperial knight who when asked around 1625 to surrender unconditionally, replied (according to Goethe’s play about him) Sag’s ihm, er kann mich im Arsch lecken! ‘Tell him he can lick my ass!’. Using his name alone was understood to refer to the obscene version, and it would have been on point, since the circumstances were the same.
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