The Grammarphobia Blog

Which egg came first?

Q: Is there a connection between the noun “egg” and the expression “egged on”?

A: No, the two terms aren’t etymologically related, though English got both from Old Norse.

It turns out that there were two separate words egg in Old Norse: a neuter noun for the reproductive body, and a feminine noun meaning an edge or a blade.

The neuter term gave English the noun “egg” while the feminine term gave it the noun “edge” as well as the verb “egg,” meaning to urge.

Interestingly, the verb “egg” is older than the noun “egg.” Although a relative of the noun did exist in Old English, it died out in the 1500s.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “English has two distinct words egg, but surprisingly the noun, in the form that we now have it, has not been in the language as long as the verb.”

Ayto says the modern noun for the reproductive body was borrowed from the Old Norse egg with the same sense, and appeared in English writing in the 14th century, hundreds of years after the verb showed up.

An earlier noun (spelled ǽg in Old English and eye in Middle English) died out in the 16th century, he says, after “considerable competition between the native eye and the imported egg.”

Ayto cites a passage in the “Prologue” to Eneydos, William Caxton’s 1490 translation of the Aeneid, that refers to the rivalry between “eye” and “egg”:

“Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges, or eyren? Certaynly it is hard to playse every man, by-cause of dyversite and chaunge of langage.”

The Old English and Old Norse nouns are etymological cousins, according to Ayto, since both are derived from the same sources in prehistoric Germanic (ajjaz) and Proto-Indo-European (ōwo-), both meaning “egg.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots traces “egg” to awi- (“bird,” and a source of “avian”).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the reproductive sense of the noun as “the (more or less) spheroidal body produced by the female of birds and other animal species, and containing the germ of a new individual, enclosed within a shell or firm membrane.”

The earliest example in the OED for the defunct Old English form is from Metres of Boethius, a translation dated sometime before 1000 of the verse sections in the sixth-century Roman scholar’s Consolation of Philosophy: “On æge bið gioleca on middan” (“There’s a yolk in the middle of an egg”).

The first written example for the modern form (with “eggs” spelled “egges”) is from Piers Plowman (1377), William Langland’s allegorical poem:

“And ȝet me merueilled more how many other briddes / Hudden and hileden her egges ful derne / In mareys and mores for men sholde hem nouȝt fynde” (“And yet I found myself marveling more at the many other birds / That hid and covered their eggs in secret spots / In marshes and moorland so men should not find them”). We’ve expanded the citation to add context.

As for the verb “egg,” Ayto says in his etymological dictionary that English borrowed it from the Old Norse verb eggja (to urge) in the 10th century, but he doesn’t give a citation.

He says eggja was “a relative or derivative” of the Old Norse form of egg that meant “edge.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots traces it back to the Proto-Germanic agjō and the Proto-Indo-European ak- (sharp).

The earliest written example in the OED is from a collection of homilies, dated around 1200, in the Trinity College library at the University of Cambridge: “werred wið god alse þe deuel him to eggede” (“even so the devil egged him to war with God”). We’ve expanded the citation to add “werred wið god.”

The OED defines “egg” here as to “incite, encourage, urge on; to provoke, tempt.” At first, the dictionary says, people were simply “egged” to do something. It wasn’t until the 16th century that they were “egged on” to do it.

The dictionary’s earliest example for the phrasal verb “egg on” is from A Medicinable Morall (1566), by Thomas Drant, the first English translation of Horace’s Satirae, a collection of satirical poems: “Ile egge them on to speake some thyng, / Whiche spoken may repent them.”

Finally, the English noun “edge” first referred to the sharp edge of a blade, while the verb originally meant to sharpen a blade. Some of the early spellings of “edge” reflected the word’s Norse origins as egg.

The first OED example for the noun (spelled “ecge”) is from Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725:

“Breostnet broden Þæt gebearh feore wið ord ond wið ecge ingang forstod” (“The mesh of mail that saved his life stood fast against point and edge”).

The first example for the noun’s usual modern sense (“the line which forms the boundary of any surface”) is from Geoffrey Chaucer’s A Treatise on the Astrolabe. His instructional manual for the device used in astronomy was written sometime before 1400:

“And sett þou þere þe degre of þe mone according wiþ þe egge of þe label” (“And set thou there the degree of the Moon with the edge of the label”). A “label” was a narrow metal rule that revolved across the face of an astrolabe.

The earliest OED citation for the verb is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (1297): “I-egged yt [the sword] ys in on alf” (“I sharpened it on one side”).

In the 16th century, the verb “edge” took on the modern sense of “to furnish with a border or edging.”

The dictionary’s first example, from a 1555 translation of a book by the Italian historian Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, describes a helmet “edged with belles and plates of golde, and vnder euery bell two knobbes of golde.” (We’ve expanded the citation to add more of the decorative edging.)

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation
And check out our books about the English language.