How are eggs used in different languages?
How do you like your eggs in the morning? Fingers crossed your answer was ‘thoroughly examined through idioms in English and other languages’, because that is how we’ll be serving them here at OxfordWords today.
Some familiar egg-based phrases
Let’s start with some advice that is useful on both a literal and a metaphorical level: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The danger is, of course, that you drop the basket and break them all at once – and don’t, the figurative use implies, risk everything on the success of one venture. It needn’t be a basket of course – the current Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry includes an example with the word paniard (‘To put all ones Eggs in a Paniard’, from Giovanni Torriano’s 1662 work The Second Alphabet Consisting of Proverbial Phrases), which later became the modern pannier.
Of course, you might want to break them if you’ve got an omelette planned – because one can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. The phrase reflects the idea that one cannot accomplish something without adverse effects elsewhere. It sounds relatively harmless, but actually has rather an unpleasant and chequered history, in terms of being used as a form of justification, as Slate explored.
Some idioms involving eggs are fairly well known, including with egg on one’s face (‘appearing foolish or ridiculous’), kill the goose that lays the golden egg (‘destroy a reliable and valuable source of income’), and walk on eggshells (‘be extremely cautious about one’s words or actions’ – that is, demonstrating the caution that walking on eggshells would require). Below are some more unusual phrases, and phrases from other languages, with which you might not be as familiar.
As alike as eggs
You’re more likely to talk about peas in a pod today, but Shakespeare gives us an example in The Winter’s Tale, where Leontes tells his son that ‘We are almost as like as eggs’. This phrases still finds its equivalent in the modern German sich gleichen wie ein Ei dem anderen, meaning ‘to resemble each other like one egg to the other’.
As sure as eggs is eggs / safe as eggs
You can be fairly certain that eggs are, indeed, eggs – so the saying as sure as eggs is eggs essentially means ‘definitely’. This later influenced the phrase as safe as eggs, which has the same sense and is effectively an abbreviated version of the initial phrase.
The term curate’s egg is not particularly intuitive: to the uninitiated, it wouldn’t immediately be clear that this British noun meant ‘a thing that is partly good and partly bad’. The reasoning dates back over a century, to the 1895 cartoon ‘True Humility’ by George du Maurier in the humorous journal Punch which depicted a meek curate who, asked by a bishop if he has been given a bad egg, assures his host that ‘parts of it are excellent’.
To come in with five eggs
If somebody came in with five eggs, I might just think we were in for a marathon baking session – but it actually meant to break or interrupt with a useless story. Why, you might ask? The phrase was originally longer – five eggs a penny, and four of them addle – presumably indicative of an uninteresting anecdote.
To crush in the egg
To crush something in the egg is to stop the germ of something bad before it develops. An English equivalent is to nip in the bud, and you’ll find étouffer quelque chose dans l’œuf (‘choke in the egg’) in French.
Laid an egg (cricket)
To have laid an egg in cricket was certainly to feel that your innings had been crushed in the egg: it means to be out without having scored any runs. Cricket fans will be familiar with this being termed a duck. As well as being out for a duck, one can, more positively, break one’s duck meaning to score one’s first runs. These uses of duck and egg come from the same origin: the idea of a zero looking like a duck’s egg.
He that steals an egg will steal an ox
This phrase suggests that anybody who would commit a small crime would be willing to commit a larger one. While presumably not strictly true – for practical reasons, as much as anything – it is an interesting counterpart to the adage you might as well be hanged for a sheep as a for a lamb: i.e., if the penalty for two offences is the same, you might as well commit the more serious one, especially if it brings more benefit.
Parecerse como un huevo a una castaña
How are eggs used in idioms in other languages? In Spanish, you might say something parecerse como un huevo a una castaña, which literally translates as ‘it seems like an egg to a chestnut’ – that is, they are very different. The equivalent in American English is apples and oranges, while in British English you’d refer to chalk and cheese.
Estar pensando en los huevos del gallo
To be thinking of roosters’ eggs in Spanish – estar pensando en los huevos del gallo – is to be daydreaming. This rather specific choice of thought is presumably chosen because it represents the impossible (roosters cannot, of course, lay eggs); a similar notion in English is indicated by castles in the air.
Wie aus dem Ei gepellt sein
Why does looking ‘as if peeled from the egg’ in German (wie aus dem Ei gepellt sein) mean that you’re dressed very fancily? Perhaps it’s a reflection of the pretty perfection of a freshly peeled egg. The origin of the English equivalent, dressed to the nines, is not clear either
Plein comme un oeuf
If you’ve eaten your fill, the French might describe you as plein comme un oeuf (‘full like an egg’) – and the Italians would nod in agreement with essere pieno come un uovo. But be careful what you say in French on this topic: oeuf is slang for ‘idiot’ in French, and faire l’oeuf (‘play the egg’) is to play the fool.
Meglio un uovo oggi che una gallina domani
In Italian, you might caution that it is meglio un uovo oggi che una gallina domani (‘better an egg today than a hen tomorrow’). The approximate English equivalent doesn’t mention eggs but is also concerned with birds: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. There are also similarities with the poultry-themed warning don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched (don’t be too confident in anticipating success or good before it is certain; both expressions are based on the fact that not all eggs will hatch into chickens.
No frigir dos ovos
Let’s give the Portuguese language the final say in this post – appropriately enough, because no frigir dos ovos (‘in frying eggs’) is the Portuguese equivalent of the British English at the end of the day – in its figurative sense of ‘when everything is taken into consideration’.