‘Teach Your Grandmother to Suck Eggs’ and Other Egg-spressions

There are many phrases featuring the word "egg," some more common than others.

ByABC News
April 5, 2015, 8:54 AM
The curious expression "teach your grandmother to suck eggs" emerged in the 1700s.
The curious expression "teach your grandmother to suck eggs" emerged in the 1700s.
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— -- With Easter weekend's arrival, you may have noticed a flood of egg-cellent puns and scrambled expressions appearing in advertisements, store windows and other announcements.

But how many of us really understand what these phrases mean or where they came from?

Michele Turner, CEO of Dictionary.com, shares the history and definition behind some of the most common egg-centric sayings in case you want to crack some into your holiday conversations. Just try not to be too much of an egghead.

Teach your grandmother to suck eggs: Emerging sometime in the 1700s, and less commonly used today, this phrase intimates that a person might be "presuming to teach someone something that he or she knows already," said Turner. "The expression was most likely conceived as a comical way to drive the message home that elders know more than their juniors imagine."

Lay an egg: Try to tell a joke that fell flat? Offer up an opinion at a meeting that didn't go over well? Sounds like you just 'laid an egg.' "Its origins are obscure, but its association with failure had been firmly established in the lexicon by the early to mid-1900s as evidenced by Variety Magazine's famous headline from October 30, 1929, the day after the stock market crash: 'Wall St. Lays an Egg,'” said Turner.

Egg on one’s face: Similar to the above phrase, this expression conveys humiliation or embarrassment for having done something. Though it came into usage in the mid-1900s, its origins remain obscure, according to Dictionary.com. "One theory is that it evolved out of teenage slang," explained Turner, "and that it referenced a messy manner of eating that might leave food around one's mouth."

To walk on eggs: Typically used around ornery individuals, this phrase expressed having to exercise caution or sensitivity. In its earliest appearances in the 1740s, the term most commonly used was "trod upon Eggs." But around 1990 that changed and the phrases "walking on eggshells" and "walk on eggshells" both skyrocketed in use, said Turner, while "walking on eggs" and "walk on eggs" fell out of favor.

Put all your eggs in one basket: "To venture all of something that one possesses in a single enterprise," is a risky gambit, and the definition of this phrase. In usage since the mid-1600s, it is often spoken in negative constructions, such as "don't put all your eggs in one basket," to caution against the risk of such behavior, according to Dictionary.com.

Nest egg: The meaning of this term has changed a lot over the years. When it entered English in the 1500s, it defined "an egg placed in a nest to induce a hen to continue laying eggs," said Turner. But it was often used figuratively to refer to an object used as a decoy. These days, the more common usage refers to money saved up for an expense, emergency or retirement.

To egg someone on: The verb use of egg in this instance has nothing to do with omelets, according to Dictionary.com. Rather, it means "to incite or urge; encourage”. The usage comes from the Old Norse term eggja.

Egghead: Originally used to describe "a bald person,” the term "egghead" became especially popular during democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaign in 1952, when it was used in reference to "an intellectual." "Stevenson offered the following cheeky Latinism in response to criticisms that intellectualism cost him the campaign: Via ovum cranium difficilis est, roughly translated as "the way of the egghead is hard,” said Turner.