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In a Word -- All about English Vocabulary


© John Keith 2004

In a Word was originally written for the ESL Egg, a Vancouver publication and web site for ESL students.

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The word this month is egg – the name of the ESL newspaper in which this column started. The simple meaning of the word is well known: eggs are laid by the female of birds, fish, and other animals that do not give birth to live young. Eggs are covered by a hard shell, like birds' eggs, or they have a membrane (a thin covering), like fish eggs. The egg we see and eat most, of course, are hen eggs, and the idioms and images which use the word egg usually have the hen egg in mind.

The word egg came into English well over a thousand years ago from Old Norse – the language of the Vikings. On their one-sail boats the Vikings raided the English coast for generations. Many eventually settled down in England and brought many words into the English language. From Old Norse the word egg came into Middle English, the form of the language between Modern English and Old English. Old English is the earliest form of the language, and it was not that much different from the Germanic language spoken at the time in what is now Germany, Denmark and Norway. Old English is so different from today’s language that most native speakers wouldn’t even recognize it as English if they heard it spoken or saw it written!

There are many idioms using the word egg. A bad egg is a person who doesn’t come to any good – like a bad chicken egg that doesn’t hatch into a chick. A good egg, usually, is a good person, but it also means one who is promising or shows promise – it appears that he or she will do well. (“He’s a good egg.”)

If someone has egg on his face, it means he said or did something and then was very embarrassed about it. (“I tried to answer the difficult question in class, but I ended up with egg on my face.”) If someone lays an egg – it means he tried to do something, but was unsuccessful. (“I didn’t practice my oral presentation, and so I laid an egg.”) You don’t put all your eggs in one basket when you don’t want to risk all your efforts on one possibility. (“We should also plan to do something else in case we can’t get tickets to the concert on Saturday night. We don't want to put all our eggs in one basket.”)

A related idiom is to walk on eggshells, which means to be very careful not to upset someone. (“My room-mate is always in a bad mood; every time I’m around him I’m walking on eggshells.”) Other uses of the word come either from its colour – eggshell white, its use – an egg roll uses eggs in its pastry, or its shape – an eggplant is not made of eggs but it looks like a large purple egg. To egg someone on, means to encourage someone to do something he really shouldn’t. (“His friends egged him on, and when he tried the dangerous new trick on his skateboard, he fell off and hurt his ankle.”) This meaning for egg, however, comes from a different source, though it was also handed down from Old Norse into Middle English. An egghead, slang for an intellectual – a person who does a lot of thinking, is a relatively new word, entering the language around time of the First World War.

Why, you may ask, does the Easter Bunny bring eggs? Both eggs and bunnies are pagan symbols of the fertility of spring, the time of the year when new growth and new life “springs forth”. The word Easter, like the direction “east”, comes from the Old English “eastre” which was the name of the goddess of dawn; the sun rises in the east at the beginning or the birth of a new day. In ancient mythology, the cosmic egg or the world egg was the beginning of culture and civilization.

ESL Egg, the name of the ESL newspaper, shows both newness and possibilities. The Egg, like the new language skill of an ESL student, might be small, but with hard work it could hatch and grow into not just an ordinary everyday chicken, or a duck, or even a Canada goose, but into a magnificent swan!

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