Q From Brian Smith in California: Could you please give the meaning and derivation of the curate’s egg?
A Perhaps I should start by explaining curate, since I’m told that this name for a junior ecclesiastical post is not well known outside Britain. A curate is an ordained minister who is an assistant to a vicar or parish priest; he (these days sometimes she) is at the bottom of the priestly pecking order, poorly paid and with no job security.
Let us now turn to the humorous British magazine Punch for 9 November 1895, which featured a cartoon drawn by George du Maurier. This showed a timid curate having breakfast in his bishop’s home. The bishop is saying “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones”, to which the curate replies, in a desperate attempt not to give offence: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”.
Readers liked this exchange so much that the cartoon led to the catchphrases “parts of it are excellent”, and “good in parts”, which are recorded from the beginning of the twentieth century. The phrase curate’s egg itself means something that is partly good and partly bad and so not wholly satisfactory: “this book is a bit of a curate’s egg”. (Despite one American dictionary, it does not mean “something discreetly declared to be partly good but in fact thoroughly bad”, which would be its literal interpretation.)