old chestnut

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Originally as chestnut, with “old” for emphasis. Popularized US 1880s, particularly Northeast and Midwest, with various theories propounded.

A commonly cited theory, viewed by the Oxford English Dictionary as “plausible” and cited by Brewer’s, is that it was coined by Boston comedic actor William Warren Jr., quoting from 1816 English melodrama The Broken Sword by William Dimond. One of the characters in the play is a boor, and when once recounting a tale mentions a cork tree, which is corrected by the character Pablo as “A chestnut. I have heard you tell the tale these 27 times.” This line was then apparently quoted at a dinner party by Warren in response to a boor there, and proved popular. Note that William Warren Sr. had previously played Pablo on stage, but died in 1832, so the phrase was presumably popularized by the son, William Warren Jr.[1]


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old chestnut (plural old chestnuts)

  1. (idiomatic) A well-worn story.
    Synonyms: old saw; see also Thesaurus:saying
    • 1905, Joseph Alexander Altsheler, chapter V, in The Candidate, page 72:
      "How's the speech to-night?" he asked, languidly; "same old chestnuts, I suppose." "As this is Mr. Grayson's second speech," replied Harley, sharply, "it is a little early to call anything that he says 'same old chestnuts.' Besides, I don't think that repetition will ever be one of his faults. Why haven't you been here?"
    • 1911, Ian Hay [pen name; John Hay Beith], chapter 9, in A Safety Match[1]:
      "Are you trying to pull my leg? If I say 'No,' will you tell me that in that case I shall be very hungry by bedtime, or something? I suppose that old chestnut has just got round to your club. Have you been electing Noah an honorary member?"

Usage notes[edit]

Often used disapprovingly, to imply “a tired old story”, but also used approvingly to introduce an aphorism – “as the old chestnut goes, …”.


  1. ^ Horse-Feathers & Other Curious Words Funk