c. 1200, nute-scale, "hard shell which forms the covering of the kernel of a nut;" see nut (n.) + shell (n.). Figurative use with reference to "great condensation" (1570s, as in in a nutshell) supposedly originally is a reference to a tiny copy of the "Iliad," mentioned by Pliny (and in English from late 14c.), which could fit into the shell of a nut.
Entries linking to nutshell
"the fruit of certain trees and shrubs which have the seed enclosed in a woody covering not opening when ripe," Middle English note, from Old English hnutu, from Proto-Germanic *hnut- (source also of Old Norse hnot, Dutch noot, Old High German hnuz, German Nuss "nut"), from PIE *kneu- "nut" (source also of Latin nux; see nucleus).
Sense of "testicle" is attested by 1915 (nuts). Nut-brown "brown as a ripe, dried nut" is from c. 1300 of animals; c. 1500 of complexions of women. The mechanical nut that goes onto a bolt is first recorded 1610s, from some fancied resemblance (nut was used of other small mechanical pieces since early 15c.). The figurative nuts and bolts "fundamentals" is by 1952. The American English slang sense of "amount of money required for something" is recorded by 1912.
Meaning "crazy person, crank" is attested from 1903; British form nutter is attested by 1958. Nut-case "crazy person" is from 1959; nut-house "insane asylum" is by 1929. For more on this sense, see nuts. In slang, nut also meant "fashionable or showy young man of affected elegance" [OED], 1904.
"hard outer covering," Middle English shel, shelle, from Old English sciell, scill, Anglian scell "seashell; eggshell," which is related to Old English scealu "shell, husk," from Proto-Germanic *skaljo "piece cut off; shell; scale" (source also of West Frisian skyl "peel, rind," Middle Low German schelle "pod, rind, egg shell," Gothic skalja "tile"), with the shared notion of "covering that splits off," from PIE root *skel- (1) "to cut." Italian scaglia "chip" is from Germanic.
Also in late Old English as "a coating or layer." The general sense of "protective outer covering of some invertebrates" is in Middle English (by c. 1400 as "house of a snail;" by 1540s in reference to a tortoise or turtle); the meaning "outer layer of a nut" (or a fruit considered as a nut) is by mid-14c. With notion of "mere exterior," hence "empty or hollow thing" by 1650s. The meaning "hollow framework" is from 1791; that of "structure for a band or orchestra" is attested from 1938. To be out of (one's) shell "emerged into life" is by 1550s.
Military use for "explosive projectile" is by 1640s, first of hand grenades, and originally in reference to the metal case in which the gunpowder and shot were mixed; the notion is of a "hollow object" filled with explosives. Hence shell shock, "traumatic reaction to the stress of battle," recorded by 1915.
Shell game "a swindle" is from 1890, from a version of the three-card game played with a pea and walnut shells.
updated on July 20, 2019
Dictionary entries near nutshell