Halfway up our road there is a chestnut tree, vast, tall. I throw up sticks every autumn to bring down the almost ripe chestnuts to use as conkers. Conkers are bored through with a skewer and string inserted, a knot tied at the bottom. The aim of the game of conkers is this: one person holds the end of his string and lets the conker dangle. The other person holds his conker in one hand, the end of the string in the other and tries to ‘bash’ the other person’s conker and smash it. You take turns if you miss. If you hit the other person’s conker, you get another go. If you smash it, your conker becomes a ‘oner’, ‘twoer’, etc. You’re not allowed to cheat and bake your conker in the oven to make it harder – you can tell if it is from its matt surface.
The joys of childhood. But on my walks round the block with the dog I meet chestnuts with lots more spikes, but shorter ones. And inside them are several ‘conkers’. But they aren’t round and have a wispy tail at the top. The tree looks different – and it has pink blossom, not white candelabras. ‘That’s a sweet chestnut,’ ma tells me. ‘You can eat them – you can’t eat horse chestnuts!’ The distinction is utterly clear.
So it is in other languages. German has Edelkastanie (= noble) for a pink tree and Rosskastanie for a white. Danish has ægte kastanje (=genuine) and hestekastanje. So does Swedish. Norwegian prefers søt, Dutch zoet for the pink one.
And the Latin names indicate clearly that we are dealing with very different species. A sweet chestnut is Castanea sativa; a horse chestnut Aesculus hippocastanum.
I am taught in French at school that pink = marron, white = châtaigne. It turns out almost the opposite is true, although the French get their chestnut terminology all mixed up. And the terms are used fairly indiscriminately, even in French cuisine. There are even French websites that try to explain to puzzled readers:
So what I learnt at school was ‘an old chestnut’. There’s a moral in there somewhere.