OF THE EASTER EGG: ANECDOTES AND ETYMOLOGIES

Once a ‘heathen’ token of fertility and (re)birth (or so we are told – speculations by the Venerable Bede in the 8th century or Jacob Grimm in the 19th, now taken as gospel, may indeed be no more than speculation) appropriated by Christianity as a symbol of resurrection, nothing could be more familiar than an egg at Easter-time. More obscure are the early history of egg-giving and the very ancient origins of the word itself… 

 

Image result for little girls painting eggs

 

 Long ago it was a custom in northern England and Scotland to give decorated hardboiled eggs as presents for Easter, just as folk still do in Catholic and Orthodox Europe and elsewhere. These little gifts, typically hand-painted in vivid colours, were known variously as ‘paste-eggs’, ‘pace-eggs’ or ‘past-eggs’, the first component being a corruption of Latin paschalis, relating to Passover or Easter, rendered in earlier Englishes by the  adjectives ‘paschal’ or ‘pasch’. The terms might alternatively have been borrowed from just across the channel, perhaps from Dutch paasche eyren or Frisian peaske aaien. Dyeing or painting eggs, however, is a custom that predates ‘western’ or Christian practice. Very ancient traditions from many parts of the world involve the communal decoration of eggs at different times of the year, in Persia for example at the Nowruz (‘new day’) festival, marking the spring equinox and celebrated for the last two thousand years.

Image result for Nowruz painted eggs

 

Old Easter traditions, some true, some perhaps true and many almost certainly embellished (pun intended), were described by John Brand in his Popular Antiquity of 1841:

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=WJM9AAAAcAAJ&pg=PA97&lpg=PA97&dq=brands+popular+antiquity+easter+eggs&source=bl&ots=ya4uX85_0D&sig=MSw3N9LT_uN5LoSNPcf8-8U4MzQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjhnqigmYraAhVJ6xQKHedmACkQ6AEIRjAH#v=onepage&q=brands%20popular%20antiquity%20easter%20eggs&f=false

The first reference specifically to ‘Easter eggs’ is by John Knox in his 1572 History of the Reformation in Scotland. This tells of ‘gifts’ bestowed in a very different sense, when in Edinburgh a Catholic priest was captured and tormented: ‘Himself fast tyed to the said Crosse, where he tarried the space of one hour; During which time, the boyes served him [i.e pelted him] with his Easter egges.’

We can perfectly understand the word Knox uses, but students of the history of the English language will be familiar with another anecdote, recounted by the printer William Caxton in his Eneydos (a translation of Virgil’s Aeneids) of 1490. He described a group of northern English merchants en route to Holland whose ship was becalmed on the Thames.  One of them went ashore to buy a meal from a local woman: ‘And specially he aksyed after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she understood hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue ‘eyren’. Then the good wyf sayd that she understood hym well.’

 

Image result for caxton eggs text

 

Northern English dialect had adopted the word egges from Old Norse, while southern and eastern dialects used Old English eyren. Both are descendants of the Proto-Germanic *ajją which itself comes from Proto-IndoEuropean*h₂ōwyóm. This may be formed from a root-word for bird,*awi-, so settling once and for all the question of which came first. It is of course also the ancestor of Latin ovum and its derivations in Italian (uovo), Spanish (huevo) and French (oeuf) as well as in Greek ōión, Old Church Slavonic aja, Russian jajco, Breton ui and Welsh wy. Our modern egg is cognate with modern Icelandic and Norwegian egg, Swedish ägg and Danish æg. Modern German ei is closer to the Old English version.

Amusingly, there have been folk etymologies (that is, fake etymologies) for egg put forward by mischievous or deluded ‘experts’ in the past. One silly claim is that our word is related to ‘ego’ – and that this is somehow a theory endorsed by Sigmund Freud. The dramatist John Lyly in his Galatea comedy of 1588 plays with the notion that eggs are enticingly golden in colour and are ‘tried in the fire’ just like gold, for which they could be a symbol or synonym. Like gold, too, they are incentives ‘to frolic’ as they ‘are a thing that doth egg on’.

That jaunty phrase to ‘egg someone on’ (first attested in1566) in the sense of urging someone to do something, especially something risky or offensive, in fact has a different history, deriving from the Middle English verb eggen, from Old Norse eggja (to incite). The base is again a noun, egg, but this time meaning the edge, of, for example a blade or a cliff, from Proto-Germanic *agjō, from Proto-IndoEuropean *h₂eḱ- (sharp, pointed), so the goading or provoking here involves pushing someone nearer or over a boundary (though some think it’s pushing with the figurative or literal edge of a sword). Lexicographers all insist that the expression ‘over-egg the pudding’ comes from this sense, supposedly referring to excessive mixing or beating, rather than – more logically – from the idea of adding too many eggs to the mixture and ruining its texture.

In the 18th and 19th centuries darning eggs (made of stone or wood and used to fill out a garment being mended) and egg-shaped trinket or needle boxes for adults became popular; the egg-shaped toy containers which were given to children at Easter were usually made of tin, sometimes of cardboard covered with velvet and satin, and filled with miniature gifts or sweets. The first chocolate Easter eggs were created in France and Germany in the early 19th century and were solid, as the technology required for hollow shells was not yet in place. The first (dark) chocolate egg produced in the UK was sold by J.S Fry of Bristol in 1873: John Cadbury followed in 1875 and by 1905 was mass-producing hollow milk chocolate eggs, often filled with sugared almonds. In a reversal in 2017 The Solid Chocolate Company boasted – erroneously – that they had produced the world’s very first solid (Belgian) chocolate egg, weighing 750gm and retailing at £24.99.

 

Image result for Fry's chocolate  eggs

 

For more European translations of ‘egg’ and their etymologies:

https://www.reddit.com/r/etymologymaps/comments/5umohl/etymology_map_for_the_word_egg_in_european/

 

 

 

 

IN ONE BASKET – OF THE EGG, AT EASTER

 

Image result for egg slang

 

I have been, all too predictably, seasonally, thinking about the egg, its role in the imminent Easter festivities which will be the subject of the next post, but also reexamining the little word itself, so commonplace, so rarely considered.

Image result for easter humpty dumpty

I’ll look at its etymology in the next post, too, but not surprisingly the egg has featured in English slang, at least since the first recorded attestations in the 16th century, but its various slang senses, until very recently, have been disappointingly obvious and unengaging.

The main senses and sub-senses of slang egg can be listed as follows, roughly in order of chronological record, and also in rough order of frequency of use (examples of these usages are listed by my fellow slang specialist and sometime collaborator, Jonathon Green, in his monumental Green’s Dictionary of Slang)

1.

  • From its physical resemblance, (ovoid, containing viscous fluid, a seed of life): Testicle 
  • From its resemblance, (ovoid, hard surface, hollow, precious content): Head
  • From resemblance, (hollow container): Bomb
  • From resemblance, (hollow container or roughly oval pellet): Capsule, Tablet (of an illicit substance)

2.

  • By extension, from the notion of a unit, organism (heard in the obsolescent expressions in ‘posh’ British English ‘a good egg/bad egg’): Person
  • Specified, perhaps with reference to simple form (in New Zealand slang this is a common insult, though some claim it is inspired by d. below): Fool
  • Further specified, perhaps with added reference to fragility: Dupe
  • Clipped form of the colloquial expression denoting an individual with overdeveloped brain-function/intellectual prowess: Egghead

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So far, so unexciting. More recently, though, the same word has been adopted for new purposes, encoding fresh and interesting ideas. These, in no particular order, are:

  1. A transgender person who hasn’t yet embraced or revealed their identity. The usage plays on the notion of ‘a chick or a cock on the inside’. In August 2017 ‘happycookie’ posted the following on the Urban Dictionary website:

     ‘…If they’re unsure whether they want to transition they’re a scrambled egg. If they                    supposedly really dislike transgender people but still constantly talk about them                    they’re a hard-boiled egg’

          The term can also apply to someone who has newly acknowledged their identity,                or recently transgendered, by analogy with ‘newly hatched’.

 

  1. A white person who wishes to be or pretends to be ‘Asian’ (in the American sense of Japanese, Chinese, etc., formerly denoted by ‘oriental’). Urban Dictionary has a first and only mention from 2003, explaining that such a person is ‘white on the outside, yellow on the inside’. But there’s more here:

 

  1. An anonymous online troll, typically using the Twitter social network. In April 2017 Twitter stopped using the egg-shaped blank as its default avatar and substituted a gender-neutral silhouette, saying that it wished to ‘prompt more self-expression’ but more probably as the word egg had come to signify a malicious, anonymous user, typically male, who harassed other accounts, typically not anonymous and female. Twitter egg had also been used since 2010 as an insult directed at users who retained the egg default because they were too inept to create their own profile picture.

 

  1. In texting abbreviation and acronyms capitalised EGG has been used for ‘Enlightened Grammar Geek’, ‘Exceedingly Great Grooves’, and by gamers for ‘Elemental Gimmick Gear’

 

  1. An Easter egg in the jargon of computing, videogaming and video production is an intentional inside joke, hidden message or image, or a secret feature, planted inside a computer program, video game, menu screen or electronic device, for instance, or only accessible by secret commands. The usage derives from having to search for hidden prizes on a traditional Easter egg hunt.

 

Image result for easter egg hunt

 

  1. To egg (someone) as a verb is not really slang, but an informal term, originating in British usage, for flinging eggs at a victim, typically as a way of expressing contempt for a public figure. (I’ll deal with the phrase ‘to egg (someone) on’ in the next post.)

 

  1. The adjective eggy, sometimes eggsy, meaning nervous, agitated or moody, or peculiar, irritating or hostile, heard in US and British slang since the 1980s, is of uncertain origin. It may not be related to eggs, but be an adaptation of the colloquial ‘edgy’ or (putting someone) ‘on edge’.

 

  1. As adjective eggy can mean also excellent, of which it may be a playful distortion, in UK playground slang, since the 1990s.

Image result for egg emoji

  1. In multiethnic British street slang eggs-up can mean intrusive, too curious or nosy. It probably comes from Jamaican ‘patois’ where it can also describe showing off or taking advantage of another person. The connection with actual eggs, if there is one, is unclear.

 

  1. While on the same subject, Jamaican English often pronounces the word as ‘hegg’, while in Irish slang a yoke is an unnamed object. There must be other senses of the e-word in popular conversation and online use, as yet unrecorded. If you know of any, please do send them to me (and you will be thanked and credited in any future writings).

 

 

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