Is it a nut, or is it a burr?

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nuts and bolts

According to Webster, a nut can be the dry, one-seeded fruit of various trees or shrubs (pecan, walnut, hazel); a small block, usually of metal, with a threaded hole through the center, that’s screwed onto a bolt; a crazy or eccentric person (that nut went bungee jumping); or a devotee or fan (she’s a health nut).

A burr, on the other hand, is defined as a rough edge on metal, a washer on the small end of a rivet, the dialectal speech of Scotland (Scots burr) or a set of buhrstones used to grind grain (burr mill).

A long time ago, someone asked me if I had heard any of the old-timers refer to the nuts that were used with bolts as burrs, and I don’t really recall such a thing.

I reckon we all know at least one person who qualifies as the crazy kind of nut, while most folks have eaten the seed type nuts.

Anyone who has spent any time tinkering with rusty iron, or machinery of any kind, is familiar with the nut, as in the “small metal block with a threaded hole in the center.”

A headed and threaded rod called a bolt is placed through matching holes in adjacent pieces of metal or wood with the head on one side, and the nut is turned onto the other, threaded end.

Through the miracle of the inclined plane, as the nut is turned on the bolt threads it draws the two pieces of metal tightly together and holds them there.

Not long ago I found the question in the February 1, 1962, issue of Implement & Tractor magazine in the Reflections column written by the longtime editor of the magazine, Elmer J. Baker, Jr. (1889-1964).

Mr. Baker often answered reader’s questions about farm machinery history, and in this one, When is a ‘nut’ a ‘burr’?, the question is:

Dear Sir,

In my childhood I often heard my father refer to a ‘nut’ as a ‘burr,’ and through the years to the present time this expression is still heard among certain farmers and ranchers.

You seem to be sort of a historian, so possibly you can give a little discourse on why a ‘nut’ is called a ‘burr.’

In referring to various dictionaries, I do not find any that describes a ‘burr’ as a ‘nut.’ What do you have to say?

M.F. Mueller, Stedje Brothers Inc., Roman, Mont.

Mr. Baker replied:

Like you, Mr. Mueller, I could get little inspiration out of the dictionaries.

I looked up ‘burr’ and ‘bur,’ which seem to be just alternate spellings, in the Webster Unabridged, the Shorter Oxford (two big volumes) and the Century (10 bigger volumes), and no mention appeared anywhere as to colloquial or provincial use of ‘burr’ for ‘nut.’

Like so many English words, burr has a host of meanings; essentially, in most instances, a round metal device.

The closest similarity to a nut was the burr, a round metal washer with a punched hole, not threaded, and used under the mushroomed end of a rivet.

A connotation of prickliness comes in when one speaks of cockle burs, or the burr on the edge of a machined hole, surface or gear tooth.

Whenever I can get into the country and visit an implement store, I keep my ear cocked for some new, to me, term for a plow share.

I picked up very early the use of point (usually in chilled territory), lay (where there were older conservative farmers) and shear, an obviously alternative pronunciation for share.

But I still have hopes of widening my vocabulary, if I live long enough.

I’m sure I’d hear something different if I got in the Cajun country, or up in Quebec and anywhere that the Amish and Mennonites have acquired the best land available, which means without stones in the fields.

• • •

I’m afraid that if Elmer Baker visited an implement store today he’d be hard-pressed to even find a plow share or a lay or a point, as they have become pretty scarce items since the moldboard plow has fallen from favor in most areas.

When I worked briefly as a parts man at Cope’s John Deere dealership in the mid-1990s, there were two or three long shelves full of plow shares — and I always had an extremely difficult time finding the correct ones for a customer’s plow — but I doubt if any are stocked today.

The Baker statement about Amish and Mennonite land puzzles me as well.

I’d bet their fields are no more or less stony than their English neighbors, although the Plain People may spend more time in clearing stones.

I can find no reason for calling nuts burrs, but neither can I find any reason why they’re called nuts, other than that the shape of a threaded nut, especially the hex kind, superficially resembles that of perhaps a hickory nut.

I have an old 1876 book that calls them nuts, so I don’t think burr was ever an official name for the things, and I much doubt that anyone calls them that anymore.

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

1 COMMENT

  1. I grew up in the late 50’s & 60’s and my Dad would refer to them as burrs. His father was a child when their family immigrated to the states from Germany in the 1880’s. Maybe there is a German origin to the use of the word burr.

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