Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Thin Shell is no Yolk

Ralph asked about the saying, “to egg someone on.” He speculated that it might have come from early theater, where bad performances were greeted with thrown objects, including eggs, tomoatoes, and anything else at hand.

Although this practice appears with some frequency in comedic movies and TV shows, I’m not sure that it was ever widespread. And wouldn’t they be trying to egg the bad actor off the stage? At any rate, it has nothing to do with this idiom, which means to urge someone on.

It goes back to an Old English word, ecg, a sharp point on a weapon, such as a sword. When captives were being moved, especially in large numbers, they would be prodded by their captor soldiers in order to move them along. A sword or a lance would act as a convincing incentive. To ecg on became to egg on, a change based on sound after the original Old English word had morphed into edge. 

Curiosity led me to collect some other Old English words based on the same root.

  • ecgan:  to sharpen, give an edge; harrow
  • ecgbana:  slayer with the sword, sword-killer, murderer
  • Ecgbryht:  ecg, edge, sword + bryht, bright, excellent
  • ecgclif:  steep shore, a sea cliff or shore
  • ecgheard:  hard of edge
  • ecghete:  sword-hatred
  • ecghwæs:  keen-edged
  • ecglást:  sword’s edge
  • ecglinga:  on the edge, edgeling
  • ecgplega:  a play of swords, sword-fight
  • ecgþracu:  hot contest, sword strength, war or savage courage
  • ecgung:  harrowing
  • ecgwæl:  sword-slaughter, sword’s wail

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

Nook edition

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