Q: In your post last month about the verb “suck” and its relatives, you refer to several negative senses of “suck eggs.” But you didn’t discuss the only usage I had heard: “Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs.”
A: That old rebuke, “Don’t teach your grandmother (how) to suck eggs,” has been used for hundreds of years to put down presumptuous upstarts, though it’s not heard much now.
As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the proverbial expression is “said to those who presume to offer advice to others who are more experienced.”
In A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Eric Partridge says teaching granny here is to “give advice to one’s senior; esp. to instruct an expert in his own expertise.”
The earliest example in the OED is from The Comical Works of Don Francisco de Quevedo, a 1707 translation by John Stevens of the Spanish writer’s poems and plays: “You would have me teach my Grandame to suck Eggs.”
We haven’t found any wording like this in the original Spanish, so we assume Stevens was translating loosely and using a comparable English expression.
Jonathan Swift used the maxim a few decades later in Genteel Conversation, a 1738 satire on how to converse in society: “Go, teach your Grannam to suck Eggs.”
Many other languages have expressions about trying to teach one’s betters what they already know. These are often translated into English as “Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs,” even though that’s not the actual wording.
Here are some of these proverbs, and their literal translations:
Latin: Ne sus Minervam doceat (“A sow does not teach Minerva [goddess of wisdom]”); Delphinum natare doces (“You’re teaching a dolphin to swim”); Aquilam volare doces (“You’re teaching an eagle to fly”); À bove majori discit arare minor (“The young ox learns to plow from the elder”).
French: Les oisons veulent mener les ois paître (“The goslings want to drive the geese to pasture”); Il ne faux pas apprendre aux poissons à nager (“One does not teach fish to swim”).
Italian: Insegnar nuotare ai pesci (“To teach fish to swim”); L’uovo ne vuol saper più della gallina (“The egg should not know more than the hen”).
German: Er will seinen Vater lernen Kinder erziehen (“He would teach his father to raise children”); Das Ei will klüger sein als die Henne (“The egg wants to be wiser than the hen”).
Spanish: Aún no ha salido del cascarón y ya tiene presunción (“He hasn’t left the shell, but he’s already being presumptuous”).
Portuguese: Ensinar o Pai-Nosso ao vigário (“Teach the Lord’s Prayer to the vicar”).
There have been many English variations on the theme, some dating back to the late 1500s, according Partridge.
The upstart has been admonished not to teach a grandmother (or granny, granddame, etc.) to spin, steal sheep, milk ducks, grope a goose (check for eggs), sup sour milk, or roast eggs, among other things.
As for the version you asked about (“Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs”), we’ve never seen an authoritative explanation for what it literally means.
But we assume that “suck eggs” here simply refers to extracting the yolk and white from an eggshell. This point was made in an anonymous parody in Punch (“Pristine Proverbs Prepared for Precocious Pupils,” Jan. 25, 1873):
Teach not a parent’s mother to extract
The embryo juices of an egg by suction;
That good old lady can the feat enact
Quite irrespective of your kind instruction
[Note: This post was updated on May 3, 2018, after a reader suggested adding the Portuguese proverb above.]