Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Kelsey's Nuts

The controversy continues.

The question on everyone's lips is: Where does the expression "deader than Kelsey’s nuts" come from, and what does it mean? According to British etymologist Michael Quinion:

I’m told it’s an expression that former US President Richard Nixon was rather fond of using. Like other Americans before and since, he meant by it that something was unquestionably and permanently defunct. You might hear somebody say “The battery’s deader than Kelsey’s nuts”, or “His chances of surviving the election are deader than Kelsey’s nuts”. ...[W]ho or what was Kelsey and what was so special about those nuts? He turns out to have been a real person, John Kelsey, one of the pioneers of car manufacture in the USA. With the encouragement of Henry Ford, he set up the Kelsey Wheel Company in 1910. By 1913 this was based in Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit... The saying refers to the proverbially secure attachment provided by the nuts and bolts on the wheels that Kelsey’s company made. In the view of the public, nothing could be fixed more tightly. And the obvious anatomical innuendoes in those nuts made the saying just a little naughty. 

Though some examples are recorded from the 1930s, the phrase began to become more widely known in the 1950s. Early on, it appeared as “tighter than Kelsey’s nuts” to mean a person who was stingy or mean, and is also recorded in the form “as safe as Kelsey’s nuts”, meaning very safe. By the early 1960s, it had evolved away from these fairly obvious formations to the imaginative and metaphorical phrase still used today.

Taking issue with eminent contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary is not my thing. However, an important bit of audio evidence has come to my attention which knocks all previous theories into the proverbial cocked hat. This 1933 recording by the Williams Washboard Band with Ted Tinsley singing, sheds new light on the controversy. No wonder all my etymologist friends are in such a tizzy. Back to you, Mr. Quinion.


  1. On behalf of my family, the Kelseys, who go back more generations than genealogists can trace, whose lineage is rooted in royal stock, I must say that I find this posting highly offensive. My dear Sir, any discourse about the nuts of the Kelsey family is both offensive and actionable. You will be hearing from our solicitors instanter, Sir.

  2. To judge from the emails flooding my inbox, I've stirred up a hornet's nest in the etymological community, not to mention the ire of the venerable Kelsey family (which, like Pooh-Bah, can trace its ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule). One respondent, a literary scholar, writes: "By far the best blogpost on Kelsey's Nuts that I've ever read. [Thankee!] Are you suggesting that 'nuts' means 'nuts'? I found it difficult to understand the lyrics."

    I'm a truth- and peace-seeker, so in an effort to quell the burgeoning controversy (or conTROVersy, as they say on the other side of the pond) and to avoid lengthy, unpleasant litigation, I herewith submit the song's lyrics, at least as far as I can understand them:

    My mother said, "My darlin', go to the store for me,
    Get some eggs and butter, some coffee and some tea,
    [Unintelligible] slowly, don't [unintelligible] [unintelligible]
    [Unintelligible] and get some saucy [salty?] nuts."

    "Kelsey's Nuts are sweetest, sweetest nuts in town,
    Kelsey's Nuts are neatest when toasted crisp and brown;
    Some say they're best when cold, but I'll say they're not,
    So try a couple of Kelsey's Nuts and try 'em when they're hot!"

    "When Kelsey's Nuts are cold, they're just like frigid air,
    Kelsey's Nuts are like rat-traps, they catch you unaware;
    [Unintelligible] [unintelligible] down to their butts,
    That ev'ry night they say a prayer for a couple of Kelsey's Nuts!"

    "Kelsey's Nuts are sweetest, sweetest nuts in town..."
    etc. etc.

    As with most literary questions, it's always best to return to the text for guidance. Of course the lacunae in the above lyrics may hold the key to some radically different interpretation, and I welcome all suggestions from any goober-scholars out there. But for now, until a better theory comes along, I can only conclude that in literature, sometimes "nuts" does mean "nuts." (Unless you're General McAuliffe responding to the German demand for surrender at Bastogne.)

    To the distinguished Sir Kenneth I say: surely civil discourse in a cloistered seminar, not bitter wrangling in a court of law, is the civilised way to settle this matter.

  3. I propose a direct semiotic connection to a parallel expression -- "HOT NUTS (GET 'EM FROM THE PEANUT MAN)" recorded in the same time span.

  4. I learned about the expression in 1970 from a slang dictionary. you can put anything with the term and it will still sound just as funny, dumber than, hotter than, fucked as...etc. ;-D

  5. When my pop was thirsty and needed a drink he would say "I'm drier than Kelsey's nut"!!!