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Where does the phrase "egg on my face" come from, and what is its meaning?

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7 Answers 7

up vote 6 down vote accepted

It often implies that you have made a serious mistake, but more strictly it indicates that something you have done (or some turn of events) has left you looking embarrassed or foolish:

Murray knows all about the Chilean 12th seed — he practised with him last week — and the British number one realises he could be left with egg on his face if he leaves Gonzalez an easy, mid-court ball.

Where it came from (source):

I know of two suggestions for where it came from. The late John Ciardi suggested an origin in the lower-class and more rowdy kind of theatrical performance, in which an incompetent actor would have been pelted with eggs and forced off the stage. The other is that it was a comment on a minor social gaffe at a meal, when poor manners or sloppy eating left egg around your mouth.

And also (source):

From the embarrassment suffered if the yellow yolk is on ones lips or beard after eating a soft boiled egg in one of those egg cups, a favorite breakfast of the upper crust... Yellow egg shows up especially well on a beard or mustache.

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Ha, you edited with the same website I found just as I was posting. :P –  MrHen May 3 '11 at 3:04
    
Yes, I did. haha. Now 1+ me. This answer is elaborate. And Im so close to 200 for today. I started today. –  MikeVaughan May 3 '11 at 3:05
    
@Mike: Done. Although your formatting seems a bit off now. –  MrHen May 3 '11 at 3:07
    
I think you might be right, but, frankly, I'm tired. So, I'm not editing it again. :p –  MikeVaughan May 3 '11 at 3:09
    
@Mike: I touched it up for you. Feel free to edit or revert after you've had some sleep. :) –  MrHen May 3 '11 at 3:12

Etymonline suggests 1964 as the first recording and includes its meaning.

To have egg on (one's) face "be made to look foolish" is first recorded 1964.

But another website claims an 1941 source and includes two guesses at the phrase's origin with the second being more likely:

The late John Ciardi suggested an origin in the lower-class and more rowdy kind of theatrical performance, in which an incompetent actor would have been pelted with eggs and forced off the stage. The other is that it was a comment on a minor social gaffe at a meal, when poor manners or sloppy eating left egg around your mouth.

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1  
But WorldWideWords also says that "the latter is more likely". –  Colin Fine May 3 '11 at 11:01
    
I added an edit. Thanks. –  MrHen May 3 '11 at 12:51

I found an antedating of the phrase. This clip is from a January 4, 1936 issue of The Spokane Daily Chronicle. In this article, two friends gossip about a third friend (Marnie) who came for a visit but rudely rushed off because she had double-booked appointments. The article is full of idioms and seems to make a point of including all the latest fashionable slang of the time. Interestingly, the 1941 reference mentioned by @MrHen appears to have been an AP story and was printed in this same newspaper.

http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=hGpWAAAAIBAJ&sjid=C_UDAAAAIBAJ&pg=7140,1130434&dq=egg-on-my-face&hl=en

Also of note, it appears Michael Quinion has updated his entry on this phrase, since this question was asked, with another plausible origin of the phrase:

Subscriber Cal Clifford put a possible new perspective on the expression by mentioning egg-sucking dogs: “Occasionally, a trusted, working farm dog would develop the bad habit of taking eggs from nests and eating them, turning himself from asset into liability.” I found several examples of the term, including these:

His chief business was the doing away with dogs of ill-repute in the country; vicious dogs, sheep-killing dogs, egg-sucking dogs, were committed to Alan’s dread custody, and often he would be seen leading off his wretched victims to his den in the woods, whence they never returned. Glengarry School Days by Ralph Connor, 1902.

He’s a miserable, fox-faced scoundrel, and I’ve no more use for him than I have for an egg-sucking dog. Nan Sherwood at Pine Camp, by Annie Roe Carr, about 1919.

So it’s just possible that the expression might be a figurative extension from that of a dog found with egg around its muzzle, mute evidence of depravity.

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While we know the current meaning of the phrase, and have some clues as to when and where it came into use, I want to suggest that speculations about how the phrase arrived are very likely permanently unanswerable, as with so many graphic phrases.

We know from Michael Quinion's citation on WorldWideWords that the phrase was in use in 1941, apparently as US teenage slang. I suggest that there was a somebody who first used it in this sense, though we will probably never know who that somebody was. It might be the case that that somebody had a clear image in mind, and could in principle distinguish between the two origins suggested above. They might even have told someone which. If they didn't tell somebody, then the question is permanently moot and any number of people speculating on what was the phrases's origin will still not produce an answer.

My own guess is that the person could not have said which meaning they were thinking of: either, or both, or a generalised image of what a person looks like with egg dripping down their face. Like many graphic phrases and metaphors, it doesn't need a precise origin - indeed the assumption that there must be one implicitly says that there is no such thing as imagination.

I may of course be wrong in this case: they may have had a clear image in mind. But if they didn't tell anybody, we can't know it.

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My understanding is from an agricultural background. Chickens usually don't eat their own eggs. But occasionally there is one that does, and once they have tasted the contents of eggs they continue the practice, become a liability and usually end up in the pot for dinner. The evidence is usually obvious as they have egg stuck on their face. To be "caught with egg on your face" is the equivalent to "being caught red-handed" and not a good position to be in.

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Before Rockefeller monopolized petro-medicine people used numerous natural remedies like egg membrane to disinfect and heal wounds without scars.

I just tried it, it dries onto the wound perfectly and camouflages it too. (In stead of the dark brown crust it is white and semi transparent.)

It was a perfectly ordinary application, the expression could hardly refer to anything else if one is familiar with the remedy.

It's what people did before the quacks had us rub wounds with kill-em-all kinds of amazingly painful poisons (flavored to avoid ingestion!) It was more painful than cutting my face. The petroleum supper glue tape pulled out some of my eyebrows and riped open the wound all over again. Removing it hurt even more than the disinfectant. I'm not sure how to remove the glue around the wound either.

While the petroleum bandage is something that can be sold and promoted in commercials. ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esgRK1kgKCg ) It safe to assume people used something else before that.

Wikipedia: Orthopedic cast

Roman Celsus, writing in AD 30, describes how to use splints and bandages stiffened with starch. Arabian doctors used lime derived from sea shells and albumen from egg whites to stiffen bandages. The Italian School of Salerno in the twelfth century recommended bandages hardened with a flour and egg mixture as did Medieval European bonesetters, who used casts made of egg white, flour, and animal fat.

Dominique Jean Larrey(1768–1842) was born in a small town in southern France. He first studied medicine with his uncle, a surgeon in Toulouse. After a short tour of duty as a naval surgeon, he returned to Paris, where he became caught up in the turmoil of the Revolution, being present at the Storming of the Bastille. From then on, he made his career as a surgeon in France's revolutionary and Napoleonic armies, which he accompanied throughout Europe and the Middle East. As a result, Larrey accumulated a vast experience of military medicine and surgery.

One of his patients after the Battle of Borodino in 1812 was an infantry officer whose arm had to be amputated at the shoulder. The patient was evacuated immediately following the operation and passed from Russia, through Poland and Germany. On his arrival at his home in France the dressing was removed and the wound found to be healed. Larrey concluded that the fact that the wound had been undisturbed had facilitated healing. After the war, Larrey began stiffening bandages using camphorated alcohol, lead acetate and egg whites beaten in water.

(note: The cannibalistic chicken theory sounds good but I think one would refer to the chickens head rather than the chicken face)

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The true origin may actually go back to the early 1800s when an observer of the Supreme Court felt embarrassed for Chief Justice Marshall when he showed up at the Court unshaven "with egg on his face." This suggests the phrase may actually go back much earlier than 1941.

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Sounds interesting. Can you link to a source for this? –  StriplingWarrior Oct 13 '13 at 19:41

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