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Egg on one’s face

Q From Kim Parker: I’m interested in the history of the saying, having egg on your face. It means you made a big mistake.

A It often implies that you have made a serious mistake, but more strictly it indicates that something you have done (or some turn of events) has left you looking embarrassed or foolish:

Murray knows all about the Chilean 12th seed — he practised with him last week — and the British number one realises he could be left with egg on his face if he leaves Gonzalez an easy, mid-court ball.

Liverpool Daily Post, 2 Jun. 2009.

It feels like one of those expressions that have been around for ever, but the evidence suggest that it dates only from the middle of last century. It’s definitely American in origin, though now widely known wherever English is spoken.

I know of two suggestions for where it came from. The late John Ciardi suggested an origin in the lower-class and more rowdy kind of theatrical performance, in which an incompetent actor would have been pelted with eggs and forced off the stage. The other is that it was a comment on a minor social gaffe at a meal, when poor manners or sloppy eating left egg around your mouth.

As so often the origin is obscure but this newspaper story suggests that the latter is more likely, and that it began as US teenage slang:

A peek at the script turned up these gems, which Jane says are in the vocabulary of most any 15-year-old these days: “Hold your lava, Vesuvius!” (To a talkative friend). “There I was — with egg on my face!” (describing embarrassment).

The Bee (Danville, Virginia), 27 Aug. 1941.

Subscriber Cal Clifford put a possible new perspective on the expression by mentioning egg-sucking dogs: “Occasionally, a trusted, working farm dog would develop the bad habit of taking eggs from nests and eating them, turning himself from asset into liability.” I found several examples of the term, including these:

His chief business was the doing away with dogs of ill-repute in the country; vicious dogs, sheep-killing dogs, egg-sucking dogs, were committed to Alan’s dread custody, and often he would be seen leading off his wretched victims to his den in the woods, whence they never returned.

Glengarry School Days by Ralph Connor, 1902.

He’s a miserable, fox-faced scoundrel, and I’ve no more use for him than I have for an egg-sucking dog.

Nan Sherwood at Pine Camp, by Annie Roe Carr, about 1919.

So it’s just possible that the expression might be a figurative extension from that of a dog found with egg around its muzzle, mute evidence of depravity.

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Page created 27 Dec 2003; Last updated 08 Aug 2009