What does the nutshell in “in a nutshell” stand for?



I know the meaning of “in a nutshell” but do not know what “nutshell” or “nut” itself stands for in this idiom.

Since it is a metaphor, I would like to know what it recalls to the speakers/listeners’ mind whose first langage is English. Etymology of the idiom would also be greatly appreciated.


Posted 2015-12-17T12:44:08.397

Reputation: 153

Thanks! Though I skimmed that question before posting mine, I didn't notice this comment... – cu39 – 2015-12-17T14:07:48.313

You're welcome! By the way, welcome to ELL! – Damkerng T. – 2015-12-17T16:44:06.997

An example of a nutshell being used to mean a small space is Hamlet Act II, Scene 2, "I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams". – Steve Jessop – 2015-12-18T00:19:29.597



The shell of a nut tends to be small and compact, which is why "in a nutshell" is used to mean "in a few words," or, more literally, "in a compact statement."

According to Wiktionary, the etymology is as follows:

A calque of Latin in nuce.

"Calque" means "a word for word translation," and "in nuce" means "in a nut" in Latin.

Jimmy S

Posted 2015-12-17T12:44:08.397

Reputation: 845


I think that by definition, idioms have to be understood in their entirety; the meaning of the idiom does not necessarily correspond to the meaning of the individual words.

However, a nutshell is the shell, or outer covering, of a nut. Like this:

enter image description here

Inside a nutshell is a very small space, where you couldn't put very much. If you were trying to put an explanation inside a nutshell, it would have to be a very small one! - so "in a nutshell" means "in a very small and simple way".


Posted 2015-12-17T12:44:08.397

Reputation: 25 636

This is exactly what I picture. – Azor Ahai -- he him – 2015-12-18T01:32:33.823


According to some historical rumors, Pliny the Elder wrote that Cicero once found a copy of Homer's Iliad, written in minuscule letters compressed in a nutshell. Now the Iliad isn't particularly concise or anything, but that seems to be the origin of the concept as we know it today, if not the idiom itself. Here's a likeness of Pliny (AD 23- AD 79):

enter image description here


Posted 2015-12-17T12:44:08.397

Reputation: 2 828

Do you mean "tiny" rather than "puny"? – psmears – 2015-12-18T10:40:08.033

@psmears: Minuscule, actually. – Ricky – 2015-12-18T10:44:37.423

Ah, that makes more sense :) – psmears – 2015-12-18T10:47:57.017

According to other historical rumours, Pliny the Elder wrote an awful lot of bull****. – Periata Breatta – 2017-01-22T06:43:40.590