Nut rage

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The biggest news in South Korea these days is the macadamia nut tantrum that occurred on Korean Airlines last week.  Heather Cho, the eldest daughter of Korean Air Lines chairman Cho Yang-ho and herself a high-ranking executive at the airline (though since resigned), threw a monumental hissy fit when she was served macadamia nuts in a manner that she thought was not suitably elegant.  Amongst the usual media accounts of the incident, there was this statement from the UK Guardian:

Bloggers and the Korean press lambasted Cho for her arrogance, and took to social media to mock her for going “nuts”.

and reports of this tweet in Korean from an online shopping mall/auction site that makes a sort of punning reference to “that nut.”

Jeff Weinberg asks whether “nut” or “nuts” in Korean is used for “crazy person” or “crazy” as it’s used in English (and maybe primarily American English).

According to Bob Ramsey:

So far as I know, 'nuts' in the sense of 'crazy' is only an American English term. 'Nuts' is not used that way at all in Korean. What the Korea press does talk about that I found curious,though, is associating her with 'peanuts' (ttangkong) — I think I remember seeing her called the ‘peanuts lady’ in some headline–when we know from the Western press that the furor was over the serving of macadamia nuts. Not sure why Koreans were talking about peanuts instead, except that those nuts are more familiar to Koreans than macadamia nuts. But none of these words, as far as I know, is associated with going crazy or wild the way 'going nuts' is in America.

Haewon Cho concurs:

"Nuts" does not mean "insane" in Korean. Because of this incident, Korean Air (대한항공, Daehanhanggong , RR; Taehanhanggong, MR) is ridiculed as "땅콩 항공 (Ttangkong hanggong, RR; Ttangk'ong Hanggong, MR; Ttangkong means peanuts, hanggong means airlines). It's because peanuts are so small and not something expensive or important? I am not sure….

Ttangkong also refers to a short person. For example, Mihyun Kim, a professional golf player, is often called "Super Ttangkong" because of her height (5' 1").

Here is the image of "Ttangkong hanggong" that Korean internet users have created:

Interestingly, this incident has created a sudden increase in sales of macadamia nuts.


  1. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 11:16 am

    I am reminded of the famous response sent by Gen. McAuliffe at Bastogne (50 years ago next week) to a German request that he surrender his forces, who were temporarily surrounded:

    To the German Commander
    The American Commander

    The standard account is that this was an idiom unfamiliar to the English-speaking Wehrmacht officer to whom the response was handed, so he needed it explained to him. Although this may be a different AmEng idiomatic usage than nuts-for-crazy, more parallel to a British commander responding "Bollocks" in similar circumstances.

  2. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 11:20 am

    Not a good morning for math, for "50," read "70."

  3. Alex said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 11:44 am

    What about "mad" meaning "crazy?" How common is that across languages, or even dialects of English? I'm an American, and it is the main use of "mad" in my speech community.

    And I'd like to add to the nut references the use of "nuthatch" to mean "looney bin." Even though it is not a kind of nut but a bird like a small woodpecker, the nuthatch's etymological association with nuts is apparently enough to taint it with craziness. Or maybe it's also cross-contamination from "booby hatch." (Another bird…)

  4. Brett said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: I have heard that when McAuliffe was presented with the demand to surrender, his first spoken response was "Fucking nuts!"—which he and his aides decided just to send back to the Germans (minus the f-bomb).

    @Alex: I've never seen "nuthatch" in that sense, but it unquestionable feels like wordplay, combining the bird meaning with "booby hatch."

  5. Jongseong Park said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 12:40 pm

    The nuts were originally reported in the Korean media as 견과류 堅果類 gyeongwaryu, using the technical, generic term for nuts. This is a Sino-Korean term and is rare enough not to appear in the standard dictionary for Korean, the Pyojun Gugeo Daesajeon (표준국어대사전). Only 견과 堅果 gyeongwa (the literal meaning of the Chinese characters would be "hard fruit") appears in that dictionary, without the -류 類 ryu which denotes "kind" (hence "hard fruit-kind" or "nut-kind"). Anyway, it should be clear that this is certainly not part of everyday vocabulary the way English "nut" is, and carries little in the way of cultural connotations.

    People guessed from these original reports that the nuts were peanuts, because that's what you would guess would be served on flights. And 땅콩 ttangkong "peanut", literally "earth-bean" is a familiar, everyday word that is regularly evoked in figures of speech to describe something that's small, a bit like the English word. Peanuts seem to have reached Korea sometime in the late 18th century. So the description of the incident as 땅콩 회항 ttangkong hoehang "peanut returned-flight" stuck because of its catchiness, even after it emerged that the nuts involved were in fact not peanuts but macadamia nuts.

    Macadamia nuts are a more recent arrival to Korea, and are called 마카다미아 makadamia in Korean instead of acquiring a more catchy local name. So it has been a rather unknown, exotic nut with a hard-to-remember name for most Koreans, but with the latest incident, it has been gaining a lot of publicity. Apparently the sales of macadamia nuts have skyrocketed in South Korea.

  6. KWillets said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 2:08 pm

    My impression is that people find it funny because it rhymes and has the same meter and initial consonant as the original.

  7. Barom Chon said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 2:09 pm

    Here are some factoids surrounding the peanut debacle

    1. Heather Cho was inebriated at the time. Due perhaps to the immense stress caused by a near-botched new hotel construction project in the middle of Seoul that Hanjin Group – a Chaebol corp. owned by her family – was trying to revive.

    2. Twitter jokes running rampant. One particularly funny one is a twitter account allegedly ran by the peanut itself, arguing that people's misunderstanding of the situation constitutes a clear case for libel and defamation. In fact, the whole incident is centered around the packaged 'macadamia' nuts and not 'peanuts'.

    3. Tony Fernandes, CEO of AirAsia and the Chairman of the English football club the Queens Park Rangers, said that AirAsia will serve the Honey Butter Chips – a snack with enormous popularity in Korea at the moment – in the cabins of its fleet, but warned that the snack will be provided 'packed'.

    4. The cabin chief who was humiliated by Cho at the scene came out with an interview – claiming the Korean Air execs told him to feed the press lies about how it was his voluntary decision to leave the plane.

    5. Another first-class passenger and witness to the whole incident claimed that when she filed a complaint to KAL's customer care center for the stress caused by the incident, she was contacted by a KAL exec a couple weeks later with an insincere apology and the gifts of model KAL plane and a calendar for 2015. She also said that the aforementioned exec requested to her that she 'put in good words' should any member of the press approached her.

    6. Some conspiracy theorists claim this was a masterminded cover-up to protect the Korean President Park Kun-hye's entourages – some of whom are termed by the press as the 'Ten Eunuchs' from the Eastern Han dynasty, due to alleged intimidation and corruption charges.

    7. Finally, to cap it off, Heather Cho claimed that she 'ordered the cabin chief to leave the plane, but did not ask for the plane to return to its departure gate'. Somewhat reminiscent of the incident back in 2005 involving a has-been Korean boyband idol Sang-hyuk Kim who famously claimed that he 'drank, but not dui'ed' when he was caught, in fact, dui'ing.

  8. Morten Jonsson said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 2:11 pm

    For some reason this reminds me of that ancient farce Charley's Aunt (still a staple of high school productions): "I'm Charley's aunt from Brazil. Where the nuts come from." That didn't work in German; it became "Wo die Affen herkommen." I'd be curious what translators into other languages did with it.

  9. Melanie M said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 2:31 pm

    According to an article by Lo 1999 in the J. of Sociolinguistics, "peanut" can be a mildly offensive term meaning "short" or "stocky" in Korea, and is a highly offensive slur against Vietnamese people among Korean Americans in Los Angeles.

  10. Richard W said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 3:12 pm

    'nuts' in the sense of 'crazy' is only an American English term.

    Really? It's certainly in common use in Australia, and the OED says that, while it's "orig. U.S.," it was used by H. G. Wells, for example, at least as far back as 1940:
    "Babes in Darkling Wood" iv. iii. 354 "While I have been a special case for mental treatment, it seems odd that Old England, generally speaking, has gone nuts."

  11. Ralph Hickok said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 3:51 pm

    I thought Norman Mailer coined "factoid" to mean something that appears to be a fact but isn't.

  12. Richard W said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

    @Ralph Hickok:
    It looks like he did, in the early 70s, but since the early 80s, a second has sense emerged. The OED says:

    1. An item of information accepted as a fact, although not (or not necessarily) true […]
    1973 N. Mailer Marilyn i. 18/2 Factoids..that is, facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority. […]
    2. Chiefly Journalism and Broadcasting. A brief or trivial piece of information, esp. any of a list of such items presented together.
    1982 Washington Post 16 May (Book World section) 3/1 A great lump of a book that never stirs from its obsessive accumulation of factoids. […]

  13. Jeff W said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 4:54 pm

    Thanks, Victor Mair, for responding to my email query with this blog post.

    OK, so here is the tweet and here is the Korean (my transcription of the Hangul—which I don’t know, so I hope it’s not terribly wrong) and the accompanying English reproduced below:

    긴말은 않겠다.그 땅콩.
    (사실은 마카다미아)
    "We won't say much. That nut.
    (Macadamia, actually.)"

    So I guess, from the post and the comments, that whatever is said in Korean does not correspond in a pun sense to the English “That nut” (i.e., that crazy person)—I would have been surprised if it did. So what’s the joke in Korean?

    And the Guardian report for about Ms Cho being mocked on Korean social media for “going ‘nuts’” (presumably with that pun in Korean) is just wrong. (Or maybe the people saying that are doing so in English? That doesn’t seem especially likely.)

  14. KWillets said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 5:18 pm

    I believe "그 땅콩" next to the photo of Macadamias is simply a reference to "that peanut that people are talking about", more of a play on the misidentification of the macadamia nuts.

  15. Jongseong Park said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 5:30 pm

    @Jeff W:
    긴말은 않겠다. 그 땅콩.
    (사실은 마카다미아)
    Ginmal-eun anketda. Geu ttangkong.
    (Sasil-eun makadamia)

    Literally means:
    (I) won't give a long speech. That peanut.
    (Actually macadamia nut)

    Notice that it first says "peanut" 땅콩 ttangkong and not "nut", which explains why it is immediately followed by the correction that it is in fact a macadamia nut.

    There is no pun or a real joke here. It is a tweet from GMarket, a Korean online marketplace, showing a picture of the macadamia nuts in question and a link where you can order them. It is just saying, "No long speech (of introduction) necessary. Here are those peanuts. Or actually, macadamia nuts." Whoever translated it as "that nut" gave the appearance that there was a pun at work, but there is no hidden meaning in Korean. It really is just an advertisement of nuts.

    Koreans have been keeping up with how this story is being reported overseas, so many are indeed familiar by now with the "nuts" pun in English thanks to articles explaining this in Korean. So the Guardian report isn't necessarily wrong.

  16. cameron said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 5:35 pm

    I'm with Richard W above. "Nuts" in the crazy sense may have been originally American, but it's long established in Britain and elsewhere.

  17. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 5:52 pm

    British English also has 'nutter', meaning a crazy person. There is a passage in one of the Harry Potter books where one character says of some other characters 'they're nutters'; 'nutters' is actually a plural, but many Americans read it as an adjective, and started writing 'he's nutters' and the like.

  18. Jeff W said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 6:15 pm

    @KWillets @Jongseong Park

    Got it. Ha, that’s great. Thanks!

    Well, it seems like kind of an understated joke—sort of “We don’t have to say much about those ‘peanuts’ you’ve been hearing so much about. (Macadamia, actually.)”—but maybe I’m reading into it.

    …many are indeed familiar by now with the "nuts" pun in English thanks to articles explaining this in Korean

    Oh, that’s really interesting. Obviously, that did not occur to me.

    I would have never given the whole thing a second thought, actually, except that I read The Guardian report first and thought “Oh, well, that seems pretty unlikely” (in a linguistic sense) [but, given Jongseong Park’s comment, maybe not] and then read about that tweet (with the English version) and thought “Huh? What’s going on here?” I appreciate the explanations.

    (And Gmarket said that sales of macadamia nuts were up 149% during the week the incident was reported as compared to the week before.)

  19. maidhc said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 6:54 pm

    It was my understanding that the term "nuts" refers to having squirrels store nuts in your head, meaning your head is made of wood and is hollow. "He's nuts in the head" means he's trying to operate with nuts where his brains should be.

    But now that I think about it, I'm not sure where I got this from.

    Macadamia is named after John Macadam, and while naming plants after people is common in botany, very few such names have caught on in everyday speech.

    I can think of Bougainvillea, Banksia, … then I'm stuck.

  20. Jongseong Park said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 7:19 pm

    @maidhc: That reminded me of Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia, named after the late North Korean leaders…

    Magnolia and fuchsia are better known examples.

  21. Jongseong Park said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 7:31 pm

    I also know forsythia, but it is because it is a very common flowering plant in Korea (called 개나리 gaenari) which comes up enough in songs and poems that I've learnt the English translation, though I don't think it's a common name among most English speakers. I think poinsettia might be better known.

  22. David Morris said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 8:36 pm

    I can't remember now, looking back at two and a half years living in South Korea, ever being offered any kind of nut other than the ubiquitous peanut.

  23. Jeff W said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 9:25 pm

    …I don't think it's a common name among most English speakers.

    My childhood home in New York had forsythia bushes growing all around it so I never thought it was an uncommon name.

    Well, glancing through this list of “plant names for British babies” reveals a lot of plants named after people but the only ones I recognize are begonia (named after the French botanist Michel Bégon), dahlia (named after Swedish botanist Andreas Dahl), and wisteria (named after American physician and anatomist Caspar Wistar—yes, with an a).

    (I never gave any of these plants much thought but, considering that two Tiffany “Wisteria lamps” sold yesterday for over $1 million each, maybe there’s something to at least some of them.)

  24. Robot Therapist said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 4:50 am

    @maidhc I had assumed (for no very good reason) that the derivation of "nuts" meaning "crazy" was via "nutcase" (a crazy person); and that a nut case is so called because "nut" means "head", and they have a problem in their head. "Case" in the sense of "sufferer" like a "flu case". But I more or less just made all that up. The OED is downstairs, but that would spoil the fun.

    The phrase "headcase" is also used in British English. And to "nut" someone can mean to head-butt them.

  25. Robot Therapist said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 4:52 am

    @Jeff W Yes that "Wisteria" thing is one of my favourite obscure factoids.

  26. Greg Ralph said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 6:30 am

    And while we're on factoids and macadamias, we ought to note they're the only Australian origin foodstuff to have achieved significant world consumption – even though the Hawaians think they own them these days ;)

  27. Brett said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 9:15 am

    It's interesting that plants named after people seem to have an obligatory "-ia" ending. Of course, "poinsettia" can be pronounced as poinsetta, but even there, the spelling seems to be consistent in having the "-ia."

  28. Thomas Rees said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 10:15 am

    @Brett: Most do, but not all. Plant names follow the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants [capitalisation significant]. See Article 60

  29. elizabeth yew said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 1:35 pm

    @maidhc said,
    I remember in high school writing a piece of dialogue as "You have nuts in your head!" and the drama teacher corrected me: "You don't say 'You have nuts in your head.' It's either 'You have rocks in your head' or 'You're nuts!' "

  30. Nathan Myers said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

    On the topic of macadamia nuts from Hawaii, it is perhaps noteworthy that macadamia nut clusters sold under the Mauna Loa brand are stuck together with markedly better chocolate than the more commonly offered, and slightly cheaper, Hawaiian Hosts. Remember when buying gifts.

    (Disclaimer: no relationship, etc.)

    Macadamia nuts are unusual, and unusually well-suited for use in mental soundness slurs, by the fact that they rattle in their shells. Macadamia but shells are astonishingly resilient, evidence of an evolutionary arms race.

  31. Nathan Myers said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 3:25 pm

    Indeed, crushed macadamia shells are sometimes used as industrial grit, but are not known to be shoveled into jet engine intakes to clean them, as has been apocryphally reported.

    The above are factoids in the second sense.

  32. maidhc said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 4:32 pm

    Jongseong Park, Jeff W: I knew there had to be some more.

    I have never encountered Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia, but it's amusing to guess what they must look like.

  33. Ted said,

    December 19, 2014 @ 5:15 pm

    @maidhc: I don't know what they look like, but I know you're required to trim them in one of 28 authorized ways.

  34. R Fandango said,

    December 21, 2014 @ 9:09 am

    @Andrew (not the same one):

    British English also has 'nutter', meaning a crazy person. There is a passage in one of the Harry Potter books where one character says of some other characters 'they're nutters'; 'nutters' is actually a plural, but many Americans read it as an adjective, and started writing 'he's nutters' and the like.

    Speaking of the Harry Potter series, there's also an instance in Deathly Hallows of the amusingly direct simile "nutty as squirrel poo", showing another use in British English.

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