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Which egg came first?

[Note: This post was updated on Nov. 1, 2021.]

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

A: No, the “egg” in the phrasal verb “egg on,” as in “Please don’t egg him on,” didn’t come from a chicken. It’s a different word entirely—no yolk! Shell we proceed? (OK, no more egg jokes, we promise.)

This particular “egg” was once a verb meaning to incite or provoke. Dating from around 1200 in early Middle English, it has since died away and now exists only as part of the phrase “egg on,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The other “egg,” the noun for the ovoid reproductive body, was recorded as long ago as 805, when it was ǽg in Old English, the dictionary says.

The only connection is that English acquired both words “egg” largely from Old Norse, a language that had separate but lookalike (and unrelated) words egg. Our obsolete verb is from the Old Norse noun egg (meaning an edge or blade), which is derived from the verb eggja (to incite or goad). Our other “egg” is related to the Old Norse noun egg (meaning the reproductive body).

[On May 12, 2017, a Norwegian-American reader wrote to point out that in modern Norwegian, egge means to “incite,” “urge,” or “egg on.”]

Ultimately, each Norse egg has its own distinct source in prehistory, before written language. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots traces the sharp-edged, bladelike egg to an ancient Indo-European root reconstructed as ak- (sharp), and the reproductive egg to a different root, awi- (bird), source of the English “avian,” “aviary,” “aviation,” etc.

The bare verb “egg,” before “on” was added, was first recorded in English around 1200.

The earliest OED citation, which we’ll expand for context, is from Trinity College Homilies, a collection held at the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. The passage is a reference to Job: “gief [he hadde] werred wið god alse þe deuel him to eggede” (“if [he had] warred with God as the devil egged him to do”).

And this Oxford example is from Hali Meidenhad (Holy Maidenhood), another religious homily written around the same time: “& eggeð þe to brudlac” (“and egged thee to bridelock”). The archaic “bridelock” meant marriage or a wedding ceremony.

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 (or were “egged” by others). It wasn’t until the 16th century that they were “egged on.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the phrasal verb 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.”

As we mentioned, the old verb “egg” is now defunct, though its ghost lurks in the fixed expression “egg on.”

Now for the noun “egg,” which most of us associate with breakfast. It’s defined in the OED 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 citation in the OED, recorded in the Old English plural ægera, is from a land grant generally known as Oswulf’s Charter and dated from 805:

“gif hit ðonne festendæg sie, selle mon unege cæsu and fisces and butran and ægera” (“if it then be a fast-day, they are to give a wey of cheese, and fish, butter and eggs”). From a gift of land by a wealthy Kent alderman, Oswulf, and his wife, Beornthryth, to Christ Church in Canterbury in exchange for masses and ceremonies remembering them.

The word also appears in Metres of Boethius, an Old English translation (probably done between 880 and 950) of the verse sections of Consolation of Philosophy by the sixth-century Roman scholar Boethius: “On æge bið gioleca on middan” (“In an egg there’s a yolk in the middle”).

The first written example with a more familiar spelling (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.

[An aside: The “egg” that means to cover or pelt with egg is a mid-19th-century invention. The dictionary’s earliest written use for the culinary meaning (to coat with egg or an eggy mixture), dates from 1834. The earliest for the vandalizing sense (to throw eggs at someone or something, like a house at Halloween), is from 1857.]

Finally, a few words about the English word “edge,” which has a finger in this pie.

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 Old Norse origin in egg (the noun for an edge or blade).

The first OED example for the noun (ecge in Old English) 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 verb “edge”was recorded early on, before the year 800, with a meaning that’s now obsolete. Yes, it meant the same thing as the old English verb “egg,” to incite, goad, provoke, and so on. It was also used literally (as egide in Old English) to mean “harrow,” that is, to plough or cut into the soil.

A meaning that’s not obsolete today is simply “give an edge to” (an ax, blade, etc.).

The OED’s earliest citation for that sense of 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.)

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