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.


3 Answers 3


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.


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".

  • This is exactly what I picture. Dec 18, 2015 at 1:32

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

  • Do you mean "tiny" rather than "puny"?
    – psmears
    Dec 18, 2015 at 10:40
  • @psmears: Minuscule, actually.
    – Ricky
    Dec 18, 2015 at 10:44
  • Ah, that makes more sense :)
    – psmears
    Dec 18, 2015 at 10:47
  • According to other historical rumours, Pliny the Elder wrote an awful lot of bull****. Jan 22, 2017 at 6:43

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