Words in the News


Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

It’s been a while since we had a full-blown food scandal in the UK, but one is brewing with the news that up to 700,000 eggs in UK shops could be contaminated with an insecticide called fipronil. Despite assurances that the substance is present in such minute quantities that it could not possibly harm human health, eggs and products containing them are being withdrawn from supermarket shelves.

We have been here before, of course. Back in 1988 the health minister Edwina Currie created a furore by declaring that most egg production in the UK was infected with salmonella, a bacterium that causes food poisoning. People understood this to mean that they should stop eating eggs, as opposed to cooking them sufficiently, and sales plummeted overnight. The minister was forced to resign, later admitting that she had meant to say much, not most.

Eggs soon came back though, which is hardly surprising given the central place they hold in the western diet. Their importance is reflected in the language, with many common expressions being based on them. The word stands in for person in expressions such as a good egg (less frequently a bad one: apples rather than eggs are prototypically bad) while someone in an embarrassing situation is said to have egg on their face. Everyone knows that putting all your eggs in one basket is an unwise move, while to lay an egg is to fail completely. To egg someone on is to encourage them in risky or unwise behaviour.

The word egg has been in the language for a long time, coming into Old English from Old Norse. The first citations in the OED come from around the year 1000, though it did not take on its current form until the 16th century, only losing the final e in the 17th.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

1 Comment

  • Any financial egghead will tell you that if you want to build a nice egg nest, it would be extremely unwise to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

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