Re: Sucking eggs
- From: Evan Kirshenbaum <kirshenbaum@xxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Sun, 02 Apr 2006 11:00:29 -0700
"bert" <bert.hutchings@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx> writes:
Tony Cooper wrote:
At risk of being accused of not doing my own research, I ask:
What is the meaning of "teaching your grandmother to suck eggs"?
OK, I know what the *expressed* meaning of the phrase is, but under
what circumstances would one suck eggs? Why?
Others have given one interpretation. I have no evidence for it, but
it seems more likey to me that the reason that one's grandmother would
suck eggs is that she no longer has any teeth.
I had a grandmother (two, actually, but I never met one of them),
and I never saw her suck an egg. Was she not taught? Is she at
fault for not passing down some skill that would later serve her
Collecting bird's eggs and displaying the empty shells was a popular
child's hobby from perhaps the mid-1800s to mid-1900s. The phrase
"teaching your grandmother to suck eggs" entered the language from a
famous cartoon in "Punch", perhaps about 1890, in which a precocious
child with a bird's egg tells his grandmother "You see, Grandmama,
before you extract the contents of this" <verbiage here for bird's
egg> "by suction, you must make an incision at one extremity, and a
corresponding orifice at the other." Grandmama's response is to the
effect, "Dearie me! And we used to just make a hole at each end."
The OED thinks it's a couple of centuries older.
1707 J. STEVENS tr. _Quevedo's Com. Wks._ (1709) 348 You would
have me teach my Grandame to suck Eggs.
They don't give a specific etymology. Funk says
it is just a variation of an older theme that was absurd enough to
appeal to the popular fancy. One of the earliest of these is
given in Udall's translation of _Apophthegmes_ (1542) from the
works of Erasmus. It reads: "A swyne to teache Minerua, was a
prouerbe, for which we sai in Englyshe to teache our dame to
spynne." [_A Hog on Ice_, p. 137]
"Suck-egg", for an animal that sucks eggs (and, later for "a young
fellow; a silly person" and for "a dog regarded as the type of
viciousness or worthlessness" and the like) dates back to 1609 in the
The Punch cartoon page is responsible for several more otherwise
incomprehensible turns of English phrase. The best-known may be
"Like the curate's egg, good in parts" from a circa 1920s cartoon in
which a dinner hostess says to a shy guest "oh dear, curate, I'm
afraid you have a bad egg" - graphically shown in the picture - and
the curate (a junior clergyman), desperate not to offend, assures
her that "no, parts of it are very good". --
Nov. 9, 1895 according to the OED.
Evan Kirshenbaum +------------------------------------
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