What does the expression egg on have to do with chickens? Nothing, actually. Martha explains why, and tells the story of how the term curate’s egg came to mean “something with both good and bad characteristics.”

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Last week I told you about a letter from Randy in San Diego. He’s the guy who’s raising three chickens in his backyard. That got him wondering about expressions in English involving chicken. For example, what about “to egg someone on”?

Randy says he gave his trio of hens three different nesting boxes. But they all insist on taking turns using the same one. Now, you have to picture this. He writes: “Every day about 10 a.m., they each lay one egg. The hen who is laying the egg sits in the nesting box. The other two always stand near the nesting box squawking loudly until she is done. When the first hen finishes she trades places with one of the others and the whole thing happens again. They have always done this so I assume the behavior is where we get the expression to egg someone on.”

Good guess, Randy. But get this: the “egg” in “egg on” has nothing to do with the kind you eat.

To “egg on” comes from an Old Norse verb, eggja, which means to “goad or incite.” Eggja and “egg on” share a common linguistic ancestor with many other sharp, pointy words, including “edge.” In fact, in the past, the phrase “to edge on” has been used in exactly the same way as “egg on.”

Here’s another egg expression I really like. It’s “curate’s egg,” and it means “a mixed bag”—as in “I just read a curate’s egg of a book. The plot was flimsy, and the characters were wooden, but I still couldn’t put it down.”

The expression “curate’s egg” goes back to a cartoon published in 1895 in the British magazine Punch: A meek curate—that is, a clergyman—is dining at the home of his bishop. Unfortunately, he’s served a bad egg. The bishop notices that something’s wrong and politely says, “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg.” But the curate hastily replies, “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you…parts of it are excellent!” The joke, of course, is that if an egg is bad, it’s going to be totally bad, not partly. But the curate’s too timid to say so.

The term curate’s egg has since come to mean “something with both good and bad characteristics.”

Now, I’m egging you on: If you have a question about words, or any other aspect of language, please drop us a line. Our address is words@waywordradio.org.

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