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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.

Page created 12 Nov. 2011

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Last modified: 12 November 2011.