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Where does the phrase "walking on eggshells" originally come from?

Research indicates that there is no consensus on the idiom's origin, except that it is from the 1800s. Can anyone explain possible theories or early citations of the phrase or its precursors?

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    What do you think it “originally came” from somewhere or somewhen? It’s a simple and obvious metaphor. – tchrist Jul 4 '14 at 1:42
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    Some think it came from Frobotch Finterlook, who in 1639 exclaimed to his cousin Fleetch Boolsman at the end of a tiring day of stomping on eggshells, "Damn! I am sick and tired of walking on eggshells!" – Drew Jul 4 '14 at 2:49
  • It would be quite tiring, though, wouldn't it? – user3306356 Jul 4 '14 at 3:25
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    I think there is a lot to explore here, and the large view count on this question suggests to me that quite a few people have stumbled here to satisfy their own curiosity. I think that makes this question worth a "detailed canonical answer." – RaceYouAnytime Apr 20 '18 at 0:04
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    @RobbieGoodwin I'm interested in the big picture. Am I looking for a date and location? Maybe an early citation could be part of the story, sure. In jlovegren's answer below there are quite a few citations of "walking on eggs" that suggest this was an earlier idiom. I actually think it's kind of strange that people would use the expression "walking/treading on eggs" so much since it seems like something one would be unlikely to attempt in real life. If this isn't interesting to you that's fine, but if you think the answer is obvious, try digging deeper. – RaceYouAnytime Apr 21 '18 at 0:38
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+500

I can find close variants of the expression used as far back as the 16th century in English, and you'll find versions of the expressions in other language as well (several citations below are from the Early English Books Online database).

My guess (based on raising chickens) is that it's based on how hens walk when getting in and out of their nests (with careful steps). Or perhaps it's from when you're trying to find where your chickens hid their eggs, and need to walk gingerly in the area.

Discussion in the comments raises doubts about whether there's anything more to the question than the earliest attested use of the saying: the meaning is so obvious that there couldn't be too much to it getting coined. On the one hand, it's easy to work out the meaning. But on the other hand, it is metaphorical: people don't just walk on eggs. So I think there is some explanation, and "obvious" things are usually the hardest to explain.

Spatial layout and motion is a very common source for metaphorical meanings in all of the world's languages. In the expression we are talking about, the type of path that one walks on is being used metaphorically to describe someone's state of mind or approach to a social situation. It's not hard to find similar expressions of the walk on X type. I don't know which of these are conventionalized to the extent walk on eggshells is, but you get an idea of how productive the walk on X construction could be.

all thou canst do, is nothing, and this is to prepare the way for god, though in the meane tyme thou do nothing but drinke malmesy and walke vpon roses, and pray not word at all... (1630)
thou shalte walke vpon lyons and venomous edders / and shalte treade vnder thy fote the lyos whelpes and dragons:(1534)
the lord paues our way with thornes, lest wee should suppose our forefathers walked vpon pillowes (1623)
only i wil shew yt it is a verie slippery path wherein we may slide as soone as they that walke vppon ice (1588)
for alas we walk upon barrels of gun-powder in the day, our snares are so many; and we lie in the shaddow of death at night, our dangers are so great (1668)
and to their wives men give such narrow scopes, as if they meant to make them walke on ropes (1606)
the wayes of wickednes are slippery, and perplexed, we walk upon snares, we are compassed with briars, and pits (1668)
he considered that the wicked were set in locis lubricis, in slippery places: and like such as go upon ice, their feet would soon slide; or like such as walk on mines of powder

It is interesting to note that in two of these (walk on snares, walk on mines), the meaning is actually walk in a place where you are at risk of stepping on a snare, mine, etc. This makes it plausible that walk on eggs in Early Modern English meant to walk through a place where you might accidentally step on a fowl's nest, not literally to walk on a bed of eggs.


Examples and early attestations of "walk on eggs":

now last to you my legges, which be my bodies stay, frame not your gate as men on egges, Whome busting doth affray: nor yet so stoutly stride, as mens mens that beares would binde, for stately steps bewrayes the pride (1576)

The rocke of regard diuided into foure parts.

before they can be brought vnto it, they vse such a number of preambles, such vaunts and bragger; they speake so many things from the matter, and so litle to the purpose as is vncredible: and vvhen at length they come to the point it self, then lo, they treade so nicely and gingerly, as though they walked vpon eggs and feared they breaking of them, and a man can scarce turne his hand, but away they flie with such extreme hast, as though the deuil were at their heeles, and they feared lest they should stumble &; breake their necke at euery sillable which christ pronounced (1593)

A treatise conteyning the true catholike and apostolike faith of the holy sacrifice and sacrament ordeyned by Christ at his last Supper vvith a declaration of the Berengarian heresie renewed in our age: and an answere to certain sermons made by M. Robert Bruce minister of Edinburgh concerning this matter. By VVilliam Reynolde priest.

de fallu: surget amans, vestigia furum: suspenso gradus: and longest on the hinder foote he staid, so soft he treds, although his steps were wide, as though to tread on eggs he were afraid; and as he goes, he gropes on either side, to find the bed, with hands abroad displaid, and hauing found the bottome of the bed, he creepeth in, and forward go'th his head (1607)

Orlando furioso in English heroical verse, by Sr Iohn Haringto[n] of Bathe Knight.

nick: it must ope with farre lesse noise then cripple-gate, or your plots dasht: [.] [.] frank: so reach me my dake laorne to the rest, tread softly, softly: [.] [.] nick: i wil walke on Egges this pace: [.] [.] frank: a general scilence hath surprizd the house, and this is the last dore, astonishment, Feare and amazement, play against my hart, Euen as a madman beats vpon a drum (1607)

A woman kilde with kindnesse. Written by Tho. Heywood

for thou mayst many times discover a totty pate by the legs that bear it: to walk with thy nose erected, and thine arms always a kembow, like the ears of a pottage pot, will induce such as either meet or follow thee, to censure thee for a proud coxcomb: if thou tread mincingly with thick and short steps, as if thou wert walking upon eggs, they will be apt to believe that thou art a finical self conceited fool: let not thine arms as theirs do that are sowing corn, when thou goest, seem to walk as fast as thy legs, for this will make them account thee for a country-clown (1673)

Counsellor Manners, his last legacy to his son enriched and embellished with grave adviso's, pat histories, and ingenious proverbs, apologues, and apophthegms / by Josiah Dare.

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    These are great quotations, jlovegren. Can you add links to them, or does EEBO not work that way? – Sven Yargs Apr 20 '18 at 0:52
  • @SvenYargs you can get snippets via corpus.byu.edu. The actual database lets you download facsimiles of the books in PDF, though I don't have a login anymore. – jlovegren Apr 20 '18 at 0:53
  • This seems like the best answer so far, especially since it doesn't just repeat the information about the 1800s already given in the question itself. – Jason Bassford Apr 20 '18 at 3:06
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There is no actual agreement on where the expression originated from:

Walking on eggshells:

1800's usage, probably from the imagery that eggshells are easily broken.

The origin of the idiom is a matter of dispute, but the general consensus is that walking on eggshells came from the same place as other cautionary actions, such as walking on thin ice or broken glass. Some sources suggest that it came from an earlier idiom, "walking on eggs." While walking on eggshells presents enough difficulty for most people, walking on the whole egg without damage would be nearly impossible. Certain politicians who took extraordinarily cautious positions on an issue were said to have the dubious ability to walk on eggs without breaking them.

Google Ngram shows an increasing use of this expression especially in recent decades.

2

A lot of the above citings are already metaphoric. My two cents: Walking on eggs: Making sure you don't destroy your sustenance. Walking on eggshells: Being careful to not cut yourself while gathering eggs after chicks are hatched.

1

The earliest use of the idiom walking on eggs I could find on Google Books is in The Cabinet of Instruction,literature,and Amusement, dated 1829. A quote from that book:

The merchant's feet had got warm by this time; he was as light 'on the fantastic toe' as if he were walking on eggs.

The first use of the idiom walking on eggshells listed on Google Books is almost 40 years later in Newness of life, a series of sermons and addresses, dated 1878. The book itself cannot be read from Google Books, it is, however, available via this link on the Bodleian Libraries website. According to Google Books we should find the idiom on page 150 (page 163 of the pdf), and indeed it's there:

Other Christians walk very timorously, always expecting to make mistakes ; but there is a great difference between walking timorously and walking accurately. Some strike out wildly, never thinking where they are going ; others go along painfully, as if they were always walking on egg-shells or glass bottles. Let us endeavour to steer between these two extremes - not to allow ourselves to be so bound and hampered as to lose our spiritual liberty; and on the other hand not to disregard trifles, not to think lightly of those little things which when put together make such a very great thing in the end.

Not that they wrote egg-shells, rather than eggshells.

Attribution:

1 Anderson, A., Davis, A.J., Hall, J.H. & Sinclair Hamilton Collection of American Illustrated Books (1829). The Cabinet of Instruction,literature,and Amusement: Sept.16, 1828-June 27,1829. Theodore Burling

2 Aitken, W.H.M.H. (1878). Newness of life, a series of sermons and addresses. Shaw

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"Treading on eggshells" 1855

c.1855:

CHAPTER XXII.

TRUE HISTORY OF "FANNY FERN."

I WAS riding through Brookline, Mass., one fine afternoon, on my round-about way home from a fowl-hunting excursion in Norfolk County, when my attention was suddenly attracted by the appearance and carriage of the most extraordinary-looking bird I ever met with in the whole course of my poultry experience.

I drew up my horse, and watched this curiosity for a few minutes, with a fowl-admirer's wonder. It was evidently a hen, though the variety was new to me, and its deportment was very remarkable. Her plumage was a shiny coal-black, and she loitered upon a bright-green bank in the sunshine, at the southerly side of a pretty house that stood a few yards back from the road. She was rather long-legged, and "spindle-shanked," but she moved about skippingly and briskly, as if she were treading upon thin eggshells. Her feet were very delicate and very narrow, and her body was thin and trim; but her plumage — that glossy, jet-black, brilliant feathery habit — was "too much" for my then excited "fancy" for beautiful birds; and I thought I had never seen a tip-top fowl before.

As I gazed and wondered, this bird observed me coquettishly, and, raising herself slightly a tip-toe, she flapped her bright wings ludicrously, opened her pretty mouth, and sent forth a crow so clear and sharp, and so utterly defiant and plucky, that I laughed outright in her face. I did. I couldn't help it.

She noticed my merriment, and instantly flap went those glittering wings again, and another shout — a very shriek of a crow, a termagant yell of a crow — rang forth piercingly from the lungs of my sable but beautiful inamorata.

This second crow was full of fire, and daring, and challenge, and percussion. It seemed to say, as plainly as words could have uttered it, "Who are you? What you after? Wouldn't you like to cage me up — s-a-y?"

I laughed again, wondered more, stared, and shouted "Bravo! Milady, you are a rum 'un, to be sure!" And again she hopped up and crowed bravely, sharply, maliciously, wildly, marvellously.

I was puzzled. I had heard of such animals before. I had read in the newspapers about Woman's Rights conventions. I had seen it stated that hens occasionally were found that "crowed like a cock." But I had never seen one before. This was an extraordinary bird, evidently.

There it went again! That same shrill, crashing, challenging crow, from the gullet of the ebon beauty before me. 0, what a crow was that, my countrymen! I resolved to possess this bird, at any cost. And I was soon in communication with the gentleman who then had her.

"Is this your hen, sir?" I inquired. And I think the gentleman suspected me, instanter.

"Yes," he answered. "That is, I support her."

"Will you sell her?"

"No — no, sir."

"I will give you ten dollars for her."

Crack! Crash! Whew! went that crow, again. I was electrified.

"I'll give you fifteen--- "

"No, sir."

"Twenty dollars, then."

"No."

"What will you take for her?"

"Hark!" he replied. "Isn't that music? Isn't that heavenly?"

"What is that?" I asked, eagerly.

"My hen."

"What is she doing?"

"Singing," said the gentleman.

"Beautiful!" I responded. "I will give you forty dollars for her."

"Take her," replied her keeper. "She is yours."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

While Burnham's Victorian era story was cute, it seems the idea of walking on eggshells is most deeply rooted in English history. It must have been an easily recognizable idiom since at least 16th century England, because it is found in Thomas Heywood's tragedy, A Woman Killed with Kindness, first published in 1607 (and rumored to have been played in 1603).

As Frankford and Nicke steal into the house at midnight, desperately trying to be quiet:

Frankford: "...Tread softly, softly."

Nicke: "I will walke on Egges this pace."

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As with many metaphors, time and alcohol have erased the authentic origin of “walking on eggshells.” The original phrase was “walking on Seychelles.” Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, was occupied in the 18th century by pirates whose viciousness and keen hearing made the island chain one of the most dangerous places on earth. Sailors were advised that if shipwrecked on Seychelles they should tread as lightly as possible to avoid the attention of pirates.

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    @Mari-Lou I think someone did upvote it but then someone else immediately downvoted it. Or perhaps the first person reconsidered. Who's to say that a metaphor can't have several origins? As James Comey said of golden showers over Moscow, "It's possible." – Zan700 Apr 20 '18 at 16:23
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    You both have enough rep to see vote counts, just click on the (in this case zero), it shows one up- and one down vote. As for the Moscow hotel scene, this sentence from the Steele Dossier speaks volumes: The hotel was known to be under FSB control with microphones and concealed cameras in all the main rooms to record anything they wanted to. See the last part of point 3 on the second page. I think you don't get much better компромат than that. ;) – JJJ Apr 20 '18 at 19:41
  • @JJJ Thanks for the tip. I'll check out your links. – Zan700 Apr 20 '18 at 20:41
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    @JJJ If those documents (the Steele Dossier?) are accurate, Mr. Trump is indeed walking on Seychelles. – Zan700 Apr 20 '18 at 21:36
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    Even more challenging, what is the source of "She sails Seychelles in a shell chaise"? – Sven Yargs Jun 3 '18 at 0:48

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