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What came first, the chicken or the egg?


Around Easter time, this question gets asked a fair amount: what came first, the chicken or the egg?

It’s a touchy debate.

People often get wound up - so much so that the phrase ‘chicken-and-egg’ is sometimes now used to describe a situation where it is impossible to agree which of two connected things existed first, and which thing caused the other.

Personally, I am adamant that the egg must have come first. You won’t be able to convince me otherwise.

Except for in one particular circumstance – within the English language.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word ‘chicken’ comes from the Old English ‘cicen’ meaning ‘young fowl’, which in Middle English came to refer specifically to a ‘young chicken’. The word ‘chicken’ was also used as a slang term to refer to a coward from as far back as the fourteenth century – you can read more about the expression ‘to chicken out’ and other animal idioms here.

The word ‘egg’, on the other hand, only dates back to the fourteenth century, and made its way into Middle English from Old Norse. In fact, the Old Norse ‘egg’ vied with the Middle English ‘eye/eai’ for a long time before finally displacing it around 1500.

So as far as words are concerned, it seems that in the English language ‘chicken’ did exist before ‘egg’!

While we’re on the subject, here are some other idioms about eggs:

  1. “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs!” – “You can’t succeed without taking some risks!”
  2. a curate’s egg – something that is partly good and partly bad
  3. a good/bad/rotten egg – a good/bad/rotten person
  4. an egghead – an intellectual/academic
  5. as sure as eggs is eggs – without a doubt
  6. nest egg – a sum of money saved for the future (usually specifically for retirement)
  7. to egg someone on – to urge someone to do something foolish/ to encourage someone to do something they don’t want to do
  8. to have egg on your face – to look foolish
  9. to kill the goose that lays the golden egg – to ruin/end a valuable source of income
  10. to over-egg the pudding – to go too far/over the top in doing something
  11. to put all your eggs in one basket – to risk everything on one venture
  12. to teach someone’s grandmother to suck eggs – to advise a more-experienced person on something they already knowabout
  13. to walk/tread on eggshells – to behave carefully so as not to offend or upset someone

Fans of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit will also be familiar with this riddle: “a box without hinges, key, or lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid” – no prizes for guessing the answer!

If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in:

Have a wonderful weekend wherever you are celebrating– we hope the Easter Bunny brings you plenty of chocolate!

Avani Shah


31 Mar 2015
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