In a Nutshell

The phrase means something is concise, or reveals its core or essence in a short incident or event. Phrase Finder says Pliny the Elder used the phrase in Natural History in AD 77. As translated into English in 1601 by Philemon Holland, Pliny says a copy of Homer’s poem the Iliad was written on parchment and “enclosed within a nutshell.” A rather ridiculous idea since the poem runs hundreds of modern pages, and parchment – animal skin – would be hard to fold. But whether Pliny believed such a thing existed or not, here the phrase seems to mean something that is very small, not concise.

Shakespeare, who often took themes from the classics, alluded to the ‘something compact’ idea of ‘nutshell’ when he gave Hamlet the line:

“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

The figurative use of ‘in a nutshell’ to mean specifically ‘in few concise words’ didn’t emerge until the 19th century. Thackeray used it in print in The Second Funeral of Napoleon, 1841:

“Here, then, in a nutshell, you have the whole matter.”

SayWhy picks up on Pliny the Elder, and Wikipedia refers to Shakespeare, but I think Phrase Finder has the best explanation – an origin to the modern meaning.

Thank You Charles Dickens

For this week’s expression I’m working backwards – on words.
We know the origin of these terms – the works of Charles Dickens.

“It’s a sign of an author’s genius when his characters step out of the stories and become words in the language. Dozens of Dickens’s characters are now part of the English language.”

Wellerism: Dickens’s novel Pickwick Papers. Earliest documented use: 1839. A familiar phrase followed by a humorous invention. “Prevention is better than cure,” said the pig when it ran away from the butcher.
Fagin: From Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist. Earliest documented use: 1847. One who trains others, especially children, in crime. A fagin crook led a gang of young thieves.
Gamp: From Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit. Earliest documented use: 1864. A large umbrella. “By the time we fumble with our gamps, the air is dry once again.”
Scrooge: This is the only one I’ve ever used, and it took a while to enter the language. From Dickens’s novel A Christmas Carol. Earliest documented use: 1940. A miser. “He was not entirely a Scrooge. There were times when he secretly helped poor people.”
Thanks to

America’s First War With Islam

Thomas Jefferson Tripoli PiratesBrain Kilmeade, of Fox News, working with Don Yaeger who receives co-author credit in a much smaller font and may be responsible for the large number of primary sources listed in the Notes, wrote this book about America’s first war as a nation to feature the “relatively unknown, unsung patriots” who fought and died to makes our famous founding fathers’ vision come true.

I’m glad I picked up the book and will, therefore, forgive him for using one of the most famous of those founding fathers in the title: Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, the Forgotten War that Changed American History.

From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli…
Hymn of the US Marines

Around 1800, Tripoli (known today as Libya) was the most aggressive of the nations on the North African Barbary Coast: Morocco, Algeria, Tripoli, and part of Egypt, nations beholden to the Ottoman Empire. These nations, each with its own an absolute ruler, controlled the Mediterranean Sea and extended their reach into the Atlantic Ocean. They extorted protection money from nations trading in the Mediterranean, and mostly received whatever they demanded, even from powerful nations like Britain and France (which persisted in fighting each other through the period.) Ships not under the rulers’ protection were routinely captured by “pirates” working for these nations, their crews enslaved, and vast ransoms demanded. It was “a centuries-old practice of building economies around kidnappings, theft, and terror.”

US ships were easy targets
The newly formed United States, untried in the region, found “its status was lowly indeed,” but needed the economic boost from trade. At first, the US paid “tribute” like other nations did, but didn’t have the credit-rating to raise the increasing sums demanded and was still deep in debt from the Revolution. Eventually, the US fought the Barbary nations – especially Tripoli – and won the right to free passage in international waters.

I chose to title this review as a war with Islam, which is a bit hyperbolic.

  • At one point a Tripoli diplomat explained that “all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave.”
  • Later, however, when America supported an exiled prince against his brother who ruled Tripoli (regime change as a tactic is not new) the US emissary “touched upon the affinity of principle between the Islam and American religion. Both taught the existence…of one God… both enjoyed the universal exercise of humanity, and both forbade unnecessary bloodshed… the viceroy had to agree: indeed these were the maxims of his faith.”

Forgive my cynicism, but those seeking wealth and power seem to use religion when it suits their purpose. Continue reading

Islam’s Golden Age of Science

House of WisdomJonathan Lyons’ book House of Wisdom is about the most splendid period for science in Islamic – and particularly the Arab Islamic – history. This corresponded with Europe’s Dark Ages when a “great struggle between faith and reason was about to come crashing down on an unsuspecting Europe.”

The arrival of Arab science and philosophy “transmuted the backward West into a scientific and technological superpower.”

Too many Westerners think of Arabs as mere guardians of ancient Greek scholarship, holding it safely until it could be recovered by its rightful European heirs. Lyons wants you to see that Muslims made vast additions to this ancient base, and that the religion of Islam was a driver for many of their efforts.

Lyons feels the “Western consensus… that Islam is inherently hostile to innovation” is a “persistent notion” that is wrong. Because of this, Lyons tells the story from the viewpoint of Arabs – invaded by brutal, ignorant, and unsanitary barbarians (they tended to call all Europeans “Franks”) as the Crusades began.

Anyone clinging to a romantic of the Middle Ages will be disgusted by accounts of the People’s Crusade, fueled as much by political machinations as religious furor. A rabble swept towards the Middle East, killing and sacking through Christian Europe as they went, only to be slaughtered by Muslim troops. A few years later, a Crusade of troops had better luck in war.

The first couple chapters cover this period and amply document its horrors, but I was more interested in Muslim science.

“Early Islam openly encouraged and nurtured intellectual inquiry of all kinds,” which was encouraged by many sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Caliph al-Mamun was anxious to collect knowledge from Hindu, Persian, and Greek scholars, and initiated the House of Wisdom, “the collective institutional and imperial expression of… intellectual ambition.” But they didn’t simply translate and copy the works of others.

Here’s what I found most interesting – how the religion of Islam encouraged science. Continue reading

The Quartet – Founders of the America We Live In

QuartetJoseph J. Ellis sub-titles his book Orchestrating the Second American Revolution 1783 – 1789.

In 1776, thirteen American colonies won their independence and prepared to go their separate ways, “destined to become a western version of Europe, a constellation of rival political camps and countries.” The Articles of Confederation were a Peace Pact among them, not a national government. Any far-away government was distrusted like the “quasi-paranoid hostility towards… London… [and] described as inherently arbitrary, imperious, and corrupt.” (Distances were hard to overcome back then.)

Ellis sketches biographies and covers pre-Constitution attempts at governance, the Revolutionary War, the dawning Enlightenment, the Great Debate that led to the US Constitution, and the “not-so-vacant” western lands that rendered “the local and state perspective… pathetically provincial.” Ellis provides a lot of detail on the flaws in the Confederation and political machinations that created the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Drawing on “massive,” “recently published” primary sources as well as other scholars; Ellis presents a compact 174 pages (Epub edition) with appropriate notes – fattened by appendices containing the texts of the Articles of Confederation, Constitution of the United States, and The Bill of Rights.

The vast majority of Americans had no interest in an American nation. It was “a small group of prominent leaders, in disregard to popular opinion, [who] carried the American story in a new direction.” Continue reading

As American as Apple Pie

pie_apple.svg.medAn article on explains that sweet dessert pies are a fairly recent invention:

“We eat sweet pie at Thanksgiving on the premise that it captures the cuisine of colonial America. It does nothing of the kind. Sweet pie didn’t gain wide popularity until the 19th century… (in A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain included sweet pies in a list of things he missed about his homeland…), and the full American pie menu, in all of its moods and seasons, did not come into being till the 20th. American as apple pie, the phrase and concept, entered our lexicon in the late and cosmopolitan throes of the Jazz Age. The most American thing about pie, in fact, may be its retroactive claim of folksy authenticity and early dominance.” The apple’s status as an immigrant seems appropriate since it mirrors most of America’s families.

Today I Found Out notes that “the first recorded recipe for apple pie was written in 1381 in England, and called for figs, raisins, pears, and saffron in addition to apples.” But no sugar – a rare and expensive ingredient – and the pastry was used as a baking container, not to be eaten. “A recipe for apple pie very similar to today’s recipes appeared in a Dutch cookbook in 1514.” But the apple pie hadn’t made it to America yet.

Skipping ahead to World War II, a common soldiers’ slogan was “‘for mom and apple pie’ which later gave rise to ‘as American as motherhood and apple pie’. Along with Phrase Finder, Today agrees that “apparently in the 1960s, we began to be ‘as American as apple pie.'”

I found one outlier. Kelly Kazek posted that the phrase “was in use by the 1860s, leading to its place in history as an American favorite,” but – alas – she lists no citation. Could “1860s” be a typo? Her phone number is on the web page, though, if you’d like to pester her.


front cover of Grant biographyI posted a review of the more than thousand page Ulysses S. Grant autobiography and thought I should follow that with the 173 page biography by John Mosier for those who want to know more about Grant but don’t have many days of reading time to commit. I understand that, although I will comment that the autobiography gives a much richer insight into the man and his remarkable accomplishments as a general. My primary complaint about Moiser’s book is that he could have reduced it by any number of pages if he hadn’t spent so much time comparing Grant’s military actions to those of other great generals. A couple of instances would have been appropriate and instructive, but there are dozens of instances.

Moiser is indeed a Grant fan. The fly cover says, “…Mosier reveals the man behind the military legend, showing how Grant’s creativity and genius off the battlefield shaped him into one of our nation’s greatest military leaders.” Grant had many critics, and the book attributes much of the criticism to other generals (read Halleck) who feared Grant’s successes would detract from their careers. Newspapers were filled with stories about the horrible slaughters of Civil War battles, and there emerged an image that Grant was a drunken butcher who won battles by sacrificing the lives of thousands of the soldiers in his overwhelmingly large forces. My belief is that Grant was indeed a master strategist who cared deeply about human life, understood the need for solid logistics, and was amazingly quick at determining proper tactics to take advantage of terrain. In short, I believe Grant was a leader in the true definition of what would make the average soldier in the trenches or on the march look at him and decide he was a man worth following. I submit the absolute trust given Grant by William Sherman, who famously said something to the effect “I know that you will come save me, if alive.” I can’t think of a more powerful endorsement of trust between comrades in arms. Continue reading