The idiom “in a nutshell” reminds me of nothing but pistachios, hazelnuts and walnuts - delicious gems packed inside tough shells. But for English languages users, especially students, it’s a handy-dandy idiom to wrap up ideas in writings and conversations. I used to insert this idiom in every single of my essays in college. And I know most of you must be guilty of that, too. This is also one reason why teachers call “in a nutshell” an overused, not-so-creative, cliched, and an obviously pathetic way of summarizing a piece of writing. Anyway, we don’t mind teachers’ tastelessness.
Well, there is a cute little story behind the coinage of “in a nutshell” that will make you love this idiom even more.
But first, let’s make it clear Shakespeare has nothing to do with the invention of this idiom (we have a quote from Hamlett in the article only because we wanted to remind ourselves how terrific Shakespeare’s writings are). And that the story has nothing to do with eating nuts - Oh no!
The story dates back to the first century AD; and it’s recorded in the encyclopedic Naturalis Historia (Natural History) written by Pliny the Elder, a Roman encyclopaedist. Pliny was obsessed with writing down everything he heard. His writings are an incredible source of knowledge. One day, he came up with a weird idea; he claimed “there was a copy of The Illiad so small that it could fit inside a walnut shell”. People must have laughed at his nonsense and told him to just shut up and focus on writing encyclopedias.
But who knew Pliny was pretty serious. The idea was put to test in the early 18th century. The curious Bishop of Avranches in France took “a piece of paper that was 10½ inches by 8½”, and started copying out The Iliad, which is about 8 inches by 5, and has roughly 700 pages, in the tiniest handwriting possible. To his utter shock, he was able to fit 80 verses onto the first line; he folded the paper and squeezed it inside a walnut. Even though he didn’t copy the whole thing, he understood what Pliny claimed was absolutely possible. This crazy little experiment gave English lexis an incredible idiom: in a nutshell.
Initially “in a nutshell” meant “something compact” or “something compressed down to a small size”; in the line taken from Hamlett: “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams”, “in a nutshell” refers to small space.
By the19th century, “in a nutshell” evolved and we see some slight changes in terms of its usage and meaning. This is how Cambridge Dictionary defines “in a nutshell” today: very briefly, giving only the main points. Here’s how accurately, Peter De Vries, in Let Me Count the Ways, uses this idiom: “If you want my final opinion on the mystery of life and all that, I can give it to you in a nutshell. The universe is like a safe to which there is a combination. But the combination is locked up in the safe.”
By the way, in 1590, Peter Bales, an English calligrapher and one of the inventors of shorthand writing, squeezed the Bible in a nutshell. Pretty impressive! Ready to give this “in a nutshell” experiment a try?