Why Is an Overused Story or Joke Called an “Old Chestnut” and Where Did the Expression Come From?

If a joke or expression works, especially for a comic or a public speaker, it is usually overused and is consequently called “an old chestnut.”

The expression comes from a British play, The Broken Sword, or The Torrent of the Valley, written by William Dimond (1780-1837) and first produced in 1816 at London’s Royal Covent Garden Theater.

Within that play a principal character continually repeats the same joke about a cork tree, each time with a subtle variation, including changing the tree from cork to chestnut.

why is an overused story or joke called an old chestnut and where did the expression come from

Finally, tiring of the joke, another character, Pablo, says: “A chestnut! I’ve heard you tell that joke twenty-seven times and I’m sure it was a chestnut!”

The impact moment when the phrase likely entered the English language was during a dinner party somewhat later in the nineteenth century.

At the dinner the American actor William Warren the Younger (1812-1888), who at the time was playing the part of Pablo, used the “chestnut line” from the play to interrupt a guest who had begun to repeat an old familiar joke.

Coincidentally perhaps, the younger Warren’s father, also named William, was an actor, too, who for a time was associated with Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street Theater.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist for zippyfacts.com. Born in New York, she loves interesting random facts from all over the world.