We’re called Daily Nutmeg because, each weekday, we highlight good and interesting things in our corner of the Nutmeg State. But the explanation behind “Nutmeg State” isn’t as clear. History implicates the region’s trading past; Civil War-era bluster; and the nation’s inability to let go of an old joke.

Most of the nutmeg you’ll find on store shelves is the hard, woody seed—it’s not actually a nut—of Myristica fragrans, an island evergreen. The word “nutmeg” itself has opaque origins; one theory suggests it’s a variation on medieval European terms roughly translating to “musky-flavored nut.” For centuries, it was found only on a single string of islands in Indonesia: the Maluku Islands, where cloves and mace also originated. (Mace is actually harvested from Myristica fragrans, too.) This bounty gave the Malukus their own nickname: “the Spice Islands.” To get an idea of the islands’ value in the Age of Sail, consider that, in 1667, the Dutch ceded Manhattan to the English for one of them.

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After converting from a colony into a state in 1784, Connecticut would develop a brisk trade with the Caribbean, where nutmeg was illicitly transplanted from the Spice Islands sometime in the early 1800s. Special and expensive, it would be saved for commensurate occasions—like Thanksgivings and Christmases, when it graced celebratory cakes, alcoholic drinks, even savory sauces, like it still does today.

As tensions grew high nearing the Civil War, nutmeg took on a more political meaning. “Yankee peddlers” from New England had long wandered far and wide selling whatever was portable, like clocks, tinware and whole nutmegs. Anti-North rumors spread that these peddlers would sell pricey fake nutmegs carved out of wood, a plausible scam since nutmeg seeds look and feel like woody knots.

The alleged trickery fed Southerners’ appetite for resenting Northerners. A “Southern contributor” to the March 1, 1853, edition of The New York Times described “the cunning Yankee, who idealizes the small amount of turned wood into a nutmeg,” and a letter to the editor, published on February 6, 1862, sketched the typical Northerner as a “rascally, hypocritical, swindling, hambugging, traitorous, wooden nutmeg son of a Pilgrim.”

During and after the Civil War, the shorthand for Connecticut citizens became “Nutmegs,” “Nutmeggers” or, as the March 28, 1875, edition of the Times noted, “Wooden Nutmegs, but whether they like the name or not we cannot say.”

Indeed, accounts vary on how Connecticut residents felt about such nicknames. The Saturday Evening Post of September 14, 1912, described a Republican National Convention in Chicago, “whether it was 1904 or 1908,” where Wooden Nutmegs embraced the nickname: The delegation from Connecticut wore badges adorned with dangling wooden nutmegs.

It seems, however, that complaints were more numerous, even from outside the state. In an article published on September 16, 1907, the Belleville News-Democrat of Illinois asked readers, “Who has not heard that old libel on the state of Connecticut—the wooden nutmeg…?” On August 10, 1909, the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader asked, upon reporting the undoing of some of Connecticut’s more Puritanical consumption laws, “Has the wooden nutmeg joke been repealed also?” The February 22, 1913, edition of the Dallas Morning News reprinted “Were No ‘Wooden Nutmegs,’” a Boston Herald article charting a historian’s findings that there were, indeed, no wooden nutmegs.

While “Wooden Nutmegs” would eventually find its way onto history’s scrap heap, “Nutmeggers” and “Nutmeg State” have endured. Perhaps it’s because they roll off the tongue, while “Connecticuters,” a commonly suggested alternative to the former, is both a mouthful and dubiously spelled. Perhaps it’s the conceptual richness of nutmeg: as a singular flavor, and an essential element of pumpkin spice and eggnog, and, in turn, a symbol of fall, winter and the holidays.

Or maybe, after more than a century of grinning and bearing a cloying, unearned joke, locals simply decided it was best to make “Nutmeg” their own.

Written and photographed by Anne Ewbank. Image features an illustration of nutmeg on the branch as depicted in Discorsi di M. Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1744). This lightly updated story originally published on February 23, 2017.

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