Several news items in recent weeks recounted the activities of newsmakers who wound up with “egg on their face.” New York’s Mayor Bloomberg got stained from including one of the Boston Marathon bomber’s names on a list of “gun victims.” Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe was “egged” for promising elections that never occurred. And Brad Pitt narrowly avoided egg on his face when World War Z did better at the box office than most industry speculators predicted. These instances don’t include one literal case of egg on the face—Simon Cowell, of “Britain’s Got Talent,” who was pelted with rotten eggs by a disgruntled contestant. Apart from Cowell, what do the other egg stains mean, and why do we say it?
To have egg on one’s face means “be embarrassed” or to “be humlliated.” Most evidence suggests it’s an American phrase dating from the middle of the nineteenth century. The poet John Ciardi (How Does A Poem Mean?) thought it originated in burlesque or vaudeville theatres, where rowdy audiences would sometimes throw rotten eggs at unpopular performers to urge them to get offstage.
Other word sleuths think the phase originated in reference to a social gaffe by a sloppy eater who got into trouble with the yellow yolk of a soft-boiled or poached egg.
One enterprising theory is that it stemmed from working farm dogs who developed the bad habit of eating eggs from hens’ nests, to the great annoyance of their owners. Pejorative references to “egg-sucking” dogs can be found in printed accounts around the turn of the century.
As for a definitive answer, the linguistic jury is still out—fearful, it seems, of getting egg on their faces.
Egg is not the only thing the Bard of Buffalo Bayou has on his face; he also sports a goofy grin, a three-day growth of stubble, and dregs of cheap Chardonnay dribbling down his chin.
Eggs over easy, or sunny-side up,
Eggs in a skillet or in an egg-cup.
Eggs that are scrambled, and eggs that are poached,
Eggs that are rotten (and can’t be approached).
Eggs that are soft-boiled, eggs that are deviled,
Raw eggs on the morning after you’ve reveled.
Eggs that are hard-boiled, eggs that are shirred,
What kind of eggs do you think are preferred?
My favorite’s the one that I’ve always picked:
The Breakfast of Champions—Eggs Benedict!