One of the more frequent things my spiders drag back to me are references to Pliny the Elder as a source for some strange fact in some newspaper article. Most of the time, they don’t come with a reference, of course, and a lot of times it seems like the press is just dropping the name of Pliny to give their article that air of authenticity, so usually I’m immediately skeptical. One such item was related to the phrase “In a nutshell”, which was mentioned in a couple of reviews of a book called The Etymologicon:
- Cop this lot! Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle (Sydney Morning Herald)
- The dictionary of odd phrases (The Sun … which also made me skeptical because of the kitteh photo accompanying it)
According to the book (via the Sun):
In a nutshell: Another one from ancient times. Roman writer Pliny claimed to have seen a copy of the poem The Iliad that was so small it could fit in a walnut shell.
… I’d never heard of this before (but I suspect many of my readers have), but after some poking, ecce, there it is (NH 7.21 via Lacus Curtius):
Oculorum acies vel maxime fidem excedentia invenit exempla. in nuce inclusam Iliadem Homeri carmen in membrana scriptum tradit Cicero.
Even more interesting, is that someone in the 19th century no less, actually proved it could be done:
The Iliad in a nutshell. Pliny tells us that Cicero asserts that the whole Iliad was written on a piece of parchment which might be put into a nutshell. Lalanne describes, in his Curiosités Bibliographiques, an edition of Rochefoucault’s Maxims, published by Didot in 1829, on pages one inch square, each page containing 26 lines, and each line 44 letters. Charles Toppan, of New York, engraved on a plate one-eighth of an inch square 12,000 letters. The Iliad contains 501,930 letters, and would therefore occupy 42 such plates engraved on both sides. Huet has proved by experiment that a parchment 27 by 21 centimètres would contain the entire Iliad, and such a parchment would go into a common-sized nut; but Mr. Toppan’s engraving would get the whole Iliad into half that size. George P. Marsh says, in his Lectures, he has seen the entire Arabic Koran in a parchment roll four inches wide and half an inch in diameter.
- E. Cobham Brewer 1810–1897. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898. (via Bartleby.com)
… then again, if Austin Powers could fit in a nutshell, the Iliad would be easy: