It seems like my house has become a drop-off point for various types of vegetables. Ordinarily, I like getting such freebies from various neighbors and acquaintances, but it seems like this year has seen a bumper crop in home grown vegetables. This past weekend, we were invited to pick some corn from a friend's farm and were told we could help ourselves to three rows of the stuff. That's a lot of sweet corn. The entire family pitched in to shuck the stuff, yet, late last night, I found myself still shucking the stuff. As I threw the husks into a giant pile, I thought that I might take a picture and post it to Facebook with the caption "Aw, shucks!". This made me wonder about the origin of the expression.
Let's break this down. What is a shuck? It's a word used to describe the husk, pod or shell that protects certain foods. Essentially, a shuck is the worthless container that is wrapped around something of value. Origin of the actual word "shuck" is not generally known, but it first started to appear in literature in the 17th Century. Personally, I think it derives from the Middle-English word "schucke" meaning "adversary" or "devil". If you think about it, a shuck usually takes a fair amount of effort to pull off whatever foodstuff it's wrapped around. A shuck is, in effect, the adversary you must defeat in order to get at the food you want.
In the 19th Century, "shucks" began to appear as part of an idiomatic phrase indicating worthlessness. (ie "it's not worth shucks"). Shucks are, after all, pretty much worthless, aren't they? It then evolved into a standalone expression that would seem interchangeable with the word "shit". Mark Twain uses it quite a bit in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, By the late 1930s, "Aw shucks" became a common response to a compliment and indicated modesty and/or shyness. One essentially is saying "Oh, it was nothing", as shucks aren't worth anything.