Eggs in English idioms
A lot of English idioms – that is, expressions that have a culturally different meaning from their direct translation – have withstood the test of time and are hundreds of years old. Language reflects our way of life, and many of our older idioms link back to a rural way of life, before the urbanisation of Britain.
Chickens have long been domesticated and used as a food source as well as their eggs. It is thought they have existed in Britain since the Iron Age, although archeologists affirm that in this period chickens were worshipped rather than eaten, due to the fact chickens were buried undamaged and with great delicacy during this period.
When the Romans arrived in England it was a whole different kettle of fish ( or should I say chickens?) The Romans bred chickens for food, and so the chicken’s fate was sealed. They became part of our diet and remain a popular ingredient today.
Not only are chickens a source of white meat, but they also supply us with the protein packed and versatile egg, which you can boil, fry, scramble, poach and pickle and use in hundreds of different recipes.
So the humble egg has been a familiar object for a long, long time. Little wonder it appears in many English idioms. Here are a just a few that I have chosen:
A good egg /a rotten egg
Meaning : used to describe people’s character.
Example : He was a rotten egg, stealing and cheating wherever he could.
I think this one is pretty straightforward, don’t you?
Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs
Meaning : you don’t need to offer advice to people who are older and more experienced than yourself.
Example : Your grandma knows how to play bridge perfectly well, so she doesn’t need your help. Don’t teach her to suck eggs.
Where did this rather bizarre expression originate? Well, in past times, the dental care industry was yet to appear. It was common for elderly people to have lost some or most of their teeth so eating meat could be difficult for them. So by making a pinprick in an eggshell, they could easily suck out the rich, protein-high contents of the egg itself. So yes, grandmothers (and grandfathers) really did suck eggs.
To have egg on your face
Meaning : to be embarrassed by making a mistake in front of other people.
Example : After his disastrous presentation, the mayor certainly had egg on his face.
Let’s face it, no-one wants egg on their face, literally or figuratively.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
Meaning : don’t limit yourself to a single option; if it fails you will lose everything.
Example : He put all his eggs in one basket so when his business failed, he was left with nothing.
So take note. Keep your options open.
To walk on eggshells
Meaning : walking on eggshells without breaking them would be nearly impossible and you would need to tread very carefully, right?
Example : She was very sensitive that day and her friend felt she was walking on eggshells when she raised the subject.
Walking on eggshells is probably something we all have to do at some point in our lives i.e. choose our words with great care.
You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs
Meaning : you can have problems or unpleasant things to do in order to fulfill a bigger task.
Example : Even though the staff won’t like it, we need to get rid of all the out-dated equipment, to create a more modern office space.
That’s life, people.
To egg someone on
Meaning : to urge someone to do something that breaks convention or the rules.
Example : Don’t egg him on any more, he has already received a warning this morning.
Interestingly, despite being an “egg” idiom, this one really isn´t anything to do with eggs. The word egg here is derived from the old Norse eddja meaning edge. so you push someone nearer the edge, in other words. It usually means that the person who is egged on will fall foul of somebody.
A tough egg to crack
Meaning : a difficult problem or situation to solve. Also a person who is not communicative.
Example : The suspect hasn’t said much. He’ll be a tough egg to crack.
Tough eggs can be hard work.
As sure as eggs is eggs
Meaning : it’s definitely going to happen.
Example : It’s going to rain tomorrow, as sure as eggs is eggs.
It is also said that this expression could be a corruption of ” as sure as x is x “. It would certainly explain why we say eggs is eggs instead of the more gramatically correct eggs are eggs. But I like to think that eggs have been providing us with sustenance for centuries and will remain with us for a long time into the future. Sure as eggs is eggs.
And by the way, if anyone knows if the chicken or the egg came first, can you let me know?
8 replies on “As sure as eggs is eggs”
Thank you very much for explaining these idioms. I had come across a couple of them but I don’t think I would have been able to explain their meanings. I really like “To walk on eggshells” as it really captures how you feel when you are desperate not to upset someone and try to tiptoe around a sensitive topic so that you don’t hurt their feelings. “As sure as eggs is eggs” sounds quite strange – “As sure as eggs are eggs” definitely sounds better to me! I found “To have egg on your face” really interesting as I couldn’t think of a situation when someone might literally have had egg on their face. Is this an idiom that people used in the olden days? I just wondered if in the past there were ever circumstances when people would be embarrassed because they had egg on their face. Did people used to laugh at you and make fun of you if you were unfortunate enough to have egg on your face?
There are a few theories behind the “egg on your face” expression. It could be literally that you ate your egg in a sloppy way, thus ending up with bits of egg on your face, something which doesn’t do much for your credibility. It could also come from the days of early nineteenth century theatre, when the actors and singers were pelted with rotten eggs and vegetables if the audience didn’t appreciate them. Or yet another theory says it comes from rural areas where foxes might attack a group of hens and their eggs, and then walk around with the remains of egg on their faces. Of course, no-one really knows for sure.
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Thank you so much for writing back to me. I always find your replies extremely helpful. I’m really sorry that I ask so many questions – it’s just that I find what you say so interesting! One of the reasons I like looking into the original meaning of expressions is that there are often different theories and because we can’t be sure which one is correct people are free to come up with their own ideas (as long as they provide some sort of argument or evidence in support of what they say). In subjects like maths and physics there always seems to be a single right answer so there isn’t really much scope to be creative whereas in English we are allowed to have our own opinions and develop our own ideas. Your blog posts always inspire me to ask questions and try to be curious about our language. Thank you!
Charlotte, thank you very much for your comments on the blog and I think it’s great that it inspires you to ask more questions.
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Simple and witty! Not a tough egg to crack 😄
Thanks Prathamesh !
“Sure as eggs is eggs” is a new one on me, and I’ll bet I have a new one for you: In New Zealand, if you say someone’s an egg, you’ve insulted them. I’m still trying to figure out why.
Thanks for the info Ellen…..and you are right, I wasn’t aware that calling someone an “egg” in NZ was a mild insult, until now! I wish I knew the story behind that one….