I once knew a man whose chief interest in life was the naming of nuts. He devoted much of his leisure time to etymological investigation, to the discovery, for example, of when, where, and by whom a Brazil nut was first called a Brazil nut. The same went for other nuts, the filbert and the hazel and the pea and the macadamia, to name but four further nuts. Or rather three, for the filbert and the hazel are different names for the same nut, just as wolfram is the same element as tungsten, wouldn’t you know?
That the hazel nut and the filbert nut are both the same nut was something my friend learned only after many years of nut name study. He was an unsystematic fellow, with a scatter gun approach, and often distracted. Thus it is less of a surprise than it ought to be that he could study nut names for years and years while remaining ignorant of a fact that even the most cursory knowledge of nuts and nut names would afford you or me.
He was not, you see, much interested in nuts per se, in and of themselves. As far as I know, he never actually ate any nuts. It was their names that obsessed him, and I think it is true that had he not, early on, lit upon nuts as his special field, he might equally well have devoted himself to worrying away, fanatically, about the naming of something else entirely, strains of potato or types of bridge construction. But nuts it was, for him, after it once occurred to him to find out why a coconut was called a coconut. This happened in a fairground, when he was young, and wandered past a coconut shy. Puny and short-sighted and lacking in coordination, he was never likely to dislodge a coconut from its stand with any of his three throws for a penny of a projectile. The said projectile was, he told me, in spite of his fading and unreliable memory, a small rubber ball. By some miracle, with his very first throw he did dislodge a coconut, and was therefore given it to carry home with him as a prize. It was as he walked home, out of the fairground and past the otter sanctuary and along the canal towpath and through a landscape it would do my head in to try to describe to you, and which is in any case barely relevant, that he began to wonder why the nut he had tucked into his satchel was called a coconut. Thus, though he did not know it, was the course of his future life set.
He pored over reference books, encyclopaedias, glossaries, dictionaries, and compendia, both at home and at the municipal library in the town where he grew up. It was a somewhat hopeless and vile and squalid town, but the library was a good one, as was often the case in those days before our current barbarism. It was in the course of his research into coconut etymology that my friend became diverted into both filbert nut and walnut etymology. The heady days of almond etymology lay ahead. As time went on, he pursued his studies of different nut etymologies concurrently.
As I said, he was often distracted. I am sure he would have given all his time to nut names, had that prospect opened before him, but it did not. He had to eat and pay his rent and his gas bill and other living expenses, and thus he found a position as a janitor. He was something of a wizard with a mop, though he discovered that he had to concentrate very hard upon his duties, and could not think too much about nut names while mopping.
It was a janitorial colleague who, mistaking my friend’s interest in the names of nuts with an interest in nuts themselves, gave him a bag of pistachio nuts. He opened the bag, took one nut out of it, and threw the rest away. When he got home he preserved the pistachio nut in a jar filled with some kind of clear jelly suspension and placed it on a shelf in his parlour. It was the first in what went on to become a collection of single nuts, each in its own jar, each jar labelled accordingly. On Sunday evenings he dusted the lid of each jar with a rag and polish, janitorially, and checked that it was sealed tight. Otherwise he paid little attention to the nuts, and later in life he actually moved the jars from the shelf into a cupboard, where he need no longer look at them.
It is important to recognise that there was no end to his studies. Even when he had tracked down everything anyone could possibly wish to know about the name of a nut, he went on to explore the other names given to the nut in other languages. In doing so, he became a masterful polyglot, albeit one with a very limited vocabulary. And, as his memory was faulty, and full of holes, he constantly had to remind himself of that which he had already learned. So, for example, you might ask him to tell you what they called, for example, a cashew nut in, for example, Flemish, and he would stare at you blankly and go off to consult one of his notebooks, which he kept in a cardboard box in an upper room. And while he was up there he might forget what he was looking for, and become distracted, and you would be waiting below, in the parlour, your cup of tea rapidly going cold, and he would be gone so long that eventually you would give up on ever being enlightened about the Flemish word for cashew nut, and you would sigh and quietly let yourself out, only to discover that it was now pouring with rain and you had no umbrella.
Did I explain that I knew my nut naming friend when I was young and he was very old? He was ancient and wrinkled, and once I tried to joke with him that his head had taken on the appearance of a giant walnut. This remark fell flat, as he had no sense of humour whatsoever. He was interested in the names of nuts, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else in the world. A curious case, certainly, but I liked him immensely, and he taught me a lot. I know, thanks to my friend, the etymology of the name of any nut you care to call out, in your sleep, tossing and turning, and frantic, your moorings lost, now and forever, until the dawn, when you awake, safe in port.