Word of the week: Nugget


While Australia might be well known for its multitude of creatures that like to try and kill us humans, the evils of giant poisonous spiders and man-eating plants may have a rival when it comes to hallmarks of the Outback: ridiculous slang. Anyone who has visited Australia (or its awkward adopted second cousin, New Zealand), knows that it is home to a wide array of notoriously off-the-wall terminology tailored to their culture. So, one should not be surprised to learn that the word ‘nugget’ has most of its origins in either Australia or New Zealand.

For example, ‘nugget’ as a verb is cited by the Oxford English Dictionary to mean “To steal (an unbranded calf),” though this meaning has since been linked to the idea of something being rare. ‘Nugget’ as a noun lists one entry as “a type of shoe or boot polish, originally black.” Both of these meanings are completely unrelated and bizarrely specific, so rest assured that you can thank those down under for that. It is almost as though the word ‘nugget’ follows the model of Australia itself: a bastard word that has many things attributed to it, and a variety of meanings forced upon it.

Now, there are a couple of entries that basically define ‘nugget’ as “chicken nugget,” which we probably find much more familiar here in the States, but a relatively common thread throughout these definitions is the idea that a ‘nugget’ is something small and/or apart from some larger thing. That is, it is not uncommon to hear someone (probably older) say, ‘nugget of truth,’ or ‘nugget of knowledge,’ as though this nugget of information is something to be revered, respected, and taken seriously.

I find it amusing how a word that sounds so cute and innocent, and manages to retain a colloquial quality (no doubt left over from its many previous slang definitions), is used when referring to something as important as knowledge. What, then, should we take away from this realization that we use such a ridiculous word for something so prized? Are we inadvertently suggesting that being a learned individual is not to be taken so seriously? Perhaps. Perhaps ‘nugget’ should serve as a reminder that we can still have fun with our education and that knowledge and truth can still be playful. Perhaps this word is designed to check in on all of our other words and the information we get from them.  Perhaps ‘nugget’ is language’s way of saying that we should relax and enjoy the many things that life has to offer, for more often than not, there are many sides to them.

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