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Q From Valerie B: I’d be interested to learn more about the history of the British slang eggy, meaning slightly annoyed. A couple of Idahoan friends have taken to using it (I’d lay money that P G Wodehouse is behind the conspiracy), and my curiosity has risen like a well-executed soufflé. Thank you!

A I’m not so sure that Wodehouse could be an influence. The only example of the word I can find in his books is a character called Eggy, who appeared in Laughing Gas in 1936. Another character said of him, “I can’t imagine anybody more capable of worrying a family than Eggy”, but that’s because he was idle, dissolute and a drunkard. He was annoying, but not himself annoyed.

The Oxford English Dictionary records eggy from the year before Laughing Gas was published, in Judgment Day, the last of the Studs Lonigan trilogy by the American author James T Farrell, set in Chicago. So there’s a good argument for saying that eggy isn’t originally British at all. Your Idahoan friends might have taken it from the books or — if they have long memories — from the 1960 film or the 1979 miniseries made from the trilogy. However, you’re right to say that it’s known to some extent in the UK — I’ve come across it as school playground slang from the 1990s.

If one has figurative egg on one’s face, appearing ridiculous or foolish, the result may well be annoyance, but linguistically the two seem unconnected. It has been argued that eggy is a modified version of aggravated, but that’s too much of a modification to be easily accepted as the source. Others suggest it’s from edgy, nervous, tense or irritable, which may have been an influence. Edgy comes from, or is associated with, being on edge, though it has a more recent sense of being unconventional — on the cutting edge of style, so to speak. Though the OED does suggest a link between eggy and edgy, it’s through another sense of the verb to egg, one that has nothing to do with soufflés or hens, but is associated with the idiom to egg someone on, to incite, provoke or encourage.

The egg in this phrase is from Old Norse eggja, to incite, which has the same source as the verb to edge, to sharpen a weapon. (In 1603 the Bishop of Lincoln, William Barlow, wrote in his Answer to a Catholic Englishman, “Not blunting the sword of Justice, but rather edging it.”) For centuries, down to the late 1800s, egg on also appeared as edge on. I guess that the idea behind egging on is that a person is being encouraged to take action by figuratively suggesting he sharpen his sword.

We’ve lost to edge on and this has made a puzzling idiom more so. The unknown person who derived eggy from its egg on version to suggest somebody who had been egged on or provoked to the extent of becoming annoyed almost certainly wasn’t thinking of blades.

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Page created 17 Nov 2012