The nigh universal egg

The egg may be incredible and edible, but its origin as a word is still unknown

Illustration: Adolphe Millot / Public domain
Various eggs, illustration from Noveau Larousse Illustré (1897-1904).

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The word egg arguably may be the most widely familiar of the words of the enormous vocabulary of zoology, perhaps because eggs had been eaten by humans for thousands of years before they were first mentioned in writing. The modern forms—egg in English and Norwegian, æg in Danish, and ägg in Swedish—all evolved directly from the Old Norse egg and/or the Old English ǽg.

The first stage of that evolution took place around the year 1000, prompted by use of the word in biblical texts, as in Luke XI 12 of the Anglo-Saxon Gospels. Yet long before its mention in texts, the egg had gained prominence in mythology, most famously in the Roman myth of the Gemini twins, Castor and Pollux, said to have been born from an egg, together with their sisters Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra.

In the 15th century, the egg gained metaphorical stature. In an apocryphal story, when dining with Spanish noblemen, Christopher Columbus was told that his reported discovery of America was inevitable and hence no great accomplishment. Columbus was silent, but asked for a whole egg. He then challenged the noblemen to stand the egg unaided on its end. They all tried and failed. Columbus then took the egg, tapped it slightly to break its end, and stood it on the table. The noblemen were astounded; the message was clear: once something has been done, anyone can do it. The “Egg of Columbus” entered the language. Today, in Ibiza, Spain, there’s a monument to the discovery of America by Columbus in the shape of an egg.

Around the turn of the last century, before color photography was invented, French naturalist illustrator Adolphe Millot created accurate drawings of eggs for the Grand Larousse encyclopédique so beautiful that they now are regarded as works of art. So by this century, in addition to its zoological significance, the egg had gained a prominent place in mythology, philosophy, and art. Small wonder then that the complete definition of egg in the electronic Oxford English Dictionary is 15 pages long in printout.

Despite its prevalence, no indo-European root word has been identified for the word egg. Many theories as to what it might be have been put forth, but none have been conclusive. Perhaps there will always be some mystery about the word as there is about life, which eggs are designed by nature to sustain.

This article originally appeared in Norwegian on the Clue Dictionaries language blog at blogg.clue.no.

This article also appeared in the April 7, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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