Header image of books

Egg somebody on

Q From Ted Setterington: Please can you explain how we came to egg things on?

A That form of the idiom is interesting. I hadn’t previously come across it as an impersonal construction; it’s more usually as to egg somebody on, meaning to encourage or incite a person to take some action that’s often often inappropriate, dangerous or illegal. Here’s an example of your version:

“People are emotional, agitated, so they are easy to influence. It doesn’t take much to egg things on,” he said.

Oakland Tribune, 10 Jul. 2010.

And here’s one in the form that appears more often:

Party-loving Mike hit the dance floor with other stripping pals at a boozy 40th birthday bash for one of his Sports Direct chain workers. Other guests egged them on with shouts of “More” and ”Get ’em off”

The Sun (London), 5 Sep. 2011. Several photographs were attached, but I’ll spare you those.

Despite its spelling, it has nothing to do with actual ova. Those involved are not being persuaded into their actions through fear of being pelted with eggs or of being left with egg on their faces, nor are eggs employed in any other way. The source is quite different and its spelling is accidental, the result of orthographical convergence.

The origin is actually the Old Norse eggja, to incite, which is related to Old English ecg, an edge, and to the Middle Low German eggen, to harrow. That might suggest you egg somebody on by poking them in the back with something sharp, but the connection doesn’t seem to be so literal. Anyhow, the word came into English around the year 1200, initially in the sense of provoking or tempting a person. Our modern form isn’t so ancient, but old enough, appearing in the middle of the sixteenth century.

By the time egg somebody on had appeared, the spelling had changed through being influenced by eggs of the consumable sort.

Search World Wide Words

Support this website!

Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.

Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 12 Nov. 2011

Advice on copyright

The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-egg4.htm
Last modified: 12 November 2011.