In a Word: Cracking Open the Walnut

We all know that a walnut is a type of nut, but where does the “wal-” come from?


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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Trees in the genus Juglans have been cultivated, both for their wood and their nuts, in continental Europe for so long that their historical distribution cannot be accurately tracked. It took some time, though, for them to make it to Great Britain. When the English finally got their hands on these nuts, they called them, in Old English, wealhhnutu — that’s wealh “foreigner” + hnutu “nut” — to differentiate them from their native hazelnuts. Over time the name was simplified to walnut.

Walnuts are literally “foreign nuts.”

So the wal- in walnut has nothing to do with walls, nor is it the same as the wal- in ­walrus. (Walrus is of Scandinavian origin and literally means “whale horse.”) But that Old English root is shared with a couple of other words you might not expect.

When the Anglo-Saxons invaded what we now call Great Britain, wealh (“foreigner”) and its adjective form wælisc (“foreign”) are what they called the island’s native Celts — which, yes, is ironic considering they were the invading force. The words stuck, and over time, those labels became Wales and Welsh.

The Welsh don’t call themselves foreigners, of course. In the Welsh language, the country is Cymru and the people are Cymry. Both words are pronounced “KUM-ri” and derive from an older word meaning “compatriot.”

Featured image: Shutterstock

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