nutmeg, the verb

From Steve Anderson a few days ago, this cute story (by Seth Rosenthal on June 20th) from the world of basketball, on player Boogie Cousins:

Hero child nutmegs DeMarcus Cousins, then scores in his face

This is Boogie’s “DeMarcus Cousins Elite Skills Camp,” and it’s the typical session in which campers get to attempt scoring on the 7′ basketball man. Cousins obviously isn’t trying very hard to start the exchange, but then the kid successfully puts the ball through his legs and Cousins spins around with what looks to me like a genuine effort to block the reverse finish … but it’s got juuuust the right arc to soar over his fingers and drop in! And the crowd goes wild!

Video in the story. Still shot of the aftermath:


Ah, the verb nutmeg.

There’s a Wikipedia page, with some speculation about the origin of the term:

A nutmeg (or tunnel, sometimes just meg in British English slang) is a technique used in association football, field hockey or basketball, in which a player kicks, rolls or throws the ball between an opponent’s legs (feet). This can be done in order to pass to another player, to shoot on goal, or to carry on and retrieve it.

Nutmeg is the British English name for this technique.

… Kicking the ball through an opponents legs in order to get past them is a dribbling skill commonly used among football players, with some of the most notable exponents in the modern game including Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suárez. Suárez became so skilled at nutmegging opponents it led to the saying: “Suárez could nutmeg a mermaid.”

… The origins of the word are a point of debate. An early use is in the novel A bad lot by Brian Glanville (1977). According to Alex Leith’s book Over the Moon, Brian – The Language of Football, “nuts refers to the testicles of the player through whose legs the ball has been passed and nutmeg is just a development from this”. The use of the word nutmeg to mean leg in Cockney rhyming slang has also been put forward as an explanation.

Another theory was postulated by Peter Seddon in his book Football Talk – The Language And Folklore Of The World’s Greatest Game. The word arose because of a sharp practice used in nutmeg exports between America and England. “Nutmegs were such a valuable commodity that unscrupulous exporters were to pull a fast one by mixing a helping of wooden replicas into the sacks being shipped to England,” writes Seddon. “Being nutmegged soon came to imply stupidity on the part of the duped victim and cleverness on the part of the trickster.” It soon caught on in football, implying that the player whose legs the ball had been played through had been tricked, or, nutmegged.

Checking out Green’s Dictionary of Slang, we discover that nutmegs is a venerable slang term for the testicles (attested first in Broadside Ballads of 1684-9), indeed that it predates nuts in this sense. Though nutmegs in this sense has almost entirely passed out of general use, in favor of nuts or balls (or the more refined testicles), it seems to have been preserved on the football pitch (and then in other athletic arenas) in Britain (and then elsewhere). (Somewhat surprisingly, eggs in this sense has never really caught on in English, nor has oeufs in French; compare huevos in Spanish.) From Green’s:

1999 Roger’s Profanisaurus 3 in Viz 98 Oct. 21: nutmegs n. Balls that hang between a footballer’s legs.

You can appreciate how appropriate nutmegs is for this use from this photo:


(More on the spice in a little while.)

The sporting use of nutmeg(s) makes it available for a verbing of a rather complex sort. But verbings frequently stand in a complex relationship to their noun sources: in their classic study “When nouns surface as verbs” (Language 55,767-811, 1979), Eve and Herb Clark observe that there is a relatively small set of frequent N > V semantic relationships, but that idiosyncratic and highly contextualized relationships also occur. As a result, if you insist on formulating an account that covers all the examples, the best you can do is something like: the denotation of the V has something to do with the denotation of the N.

In the soccer (and other sporting) examples, to nutmeg a player is to shoot the ball under his nutmegs, that is, in between his legs. (No doubt many people who use the term have no appreciation of its origin; for them, it’s just what you say.)

Bonus: nutmeg, the spice. From Wikipedia:

Nutmeg … is one of the two spices – the other being mace – derived from several species of tree in the genus Myristica. The most important commercial species is Myristica fragrans, an evergreen tree indigenous to the Banda Islands in the Moluccas (or Spice Islands) of Indonesia.

Nutmeg is the seed of the tree, roughly egg-shaped and about 20 to 30 mm (0.8 to 1.2 in) long and 15 to 18 mm (0.6 to 0.7 in) wide, and weighing between 5 and 10 g (0.2 and 0.4 oz) dried, while mace is the dried “lacy” reddish covering or aril of the seed.

… Nutmeg and mace have similar sensory qualities, with nutmeg having a slightly sweeter and mace a more delicate flavour. Mace is often preferred in light dishes for the bright orange, saffron-like hue it imparts. Nutmeg is used for flavouring many dishes, usually in ground or grated form, and is best grated fresh in a nutmeg grater.

The origin of the name, from NOAD2:

late Middle English notemuge, partial translation of Old French nois muguede, based on Latin nux ‘nut’ + late Latin muscus ‘musk.’

2 Responses to “nutmeg, the verb”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Nice picture of a cross section of a nutmeg, which has a striking resemblance to the gross appearance of the cut surface of the liver at autopsy in patients with chronic congestive heart failure. The term “nutmeg liver” is (or once was) a common usage among pathologists. And I have heard it said “the liver shows nutmegging” in this situation.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Larry Horn on ADS-L, 9/25/17:

    Very interesting — overdetermination, as Dr. Freud would say. Nutmeg = testicle (fitting enough, given the derivation < "musk nut”) so knocking the ball between one’s opponents legs is nutmegging him (masculine non-generic, given the circumstances), but traders are bamboozled by nutmeg the spice being replaced (or if you prefer substituted) by the ersatz cheaper wooden versions, so pulling a fast one on your opponent is nutmegging them in a similar way. Presumably if a female soccer player could be described as nutmegging another, the don’t-take-wooden-nutmegs theory would win out over the testicular account, but in the absence of such diagnostics it’s hard to be sure…

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