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Not for the first time, I settle down to write this blog post having very little information about the expression of the day beyond what it is and what it means. That’s not through a lack of research on my part, it’s simply that the expression makes very little sense and the derivation is lost to the mists of time (or beyond the valley of the second page of a Google search, whichever is the most remote).
Sweet as a nut (often shortened to sweet as, or sweet, said in the same way you might say cool or wicked) is a simile of working class origin, most notably in London and way up North in Newcastle, and one which simply means I am content with the way things have turned out. Whatever the situation, things have reached a satisfactory conclusion and the person speaking could not be happier. Things are as sweet as they could possibly be, as sweet, in fact, as a nut.
Now, you’ll have noticed the main problem right away there. Nuts, even unsalted nuts, or hot roasted chestnuts, are not the sweetest of foodstuffs. They’re not exactly sour, but compared to the majority of fruits or to honey, they don’t represent a pinnacle of sweetness. And yet sweet as a nut is not an ironic phrase. It’s not a clear as mud or a as much fun as root canal work.
Oh sure, you can make a sweet liqueur out of macadamia nuts, you can roast peanuts in honey or dip hazelnuts in sugar, we know that nuts and sweetness go together well, but nuts are not, in and of themselves, sweet. Raspberries are sweet. Strawberries are sweet. Nuts are more subtle a flavor.
There’s some conjecture that the saying was originally sweet as a doughnut, and the dough bit fell off over time. But that doesn’t feel right either. I mean why would someone streamline an expression without spotting they’ve changed the meaning entirely, from one food to another, and why would this change be so totally accepted that people have forgotten the original context? Language is an ever-evolving feast, but the rate of change isn’t THAT rapid.
Then there are the people who claim that the phrase dates from a time before processed sugar, when nuts would have been considered quite sweet for the palate of the time. Or that the nut referred to is the coconut, or, or, or…
So, to put everyone out of their misery, let’s just say it started as a little bit of sarcasm, a slightly bitter line which began life meaning yep, everything is JUST TRIFFIC, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR ASKING, and has, over the years, been so thoroughly absorbed by enthusiastic optimists that this original meaning has died off, so that it now means hurrah! a delightful occurance has happened, I for one, am thrilled.
Everyone got that? Sweet as.
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic