Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Take a Crack at Some Odd Eggy Idioms

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Take a Crack at Some Odd Eggy Idioms

Article excerpt

Is it any wonder that people who are hatched not knowing the English language find it baffling?

We persist in talking in riddles and idioms. We seem to be talking about one thing, when in fact we are talking about another completely different thing. Eggs, for eggsample.

Their fragility preoccupies us. When I learned to drive, my instructor told me to imagine at all times that I had a dozen eggs loose on the back seat. The breakable shells of eggs are at the back of quite a number of our idioms.

In British dictionaries, you may come across the phrase "to tread on eggs," meaning "to broach a subject with the utmost delicacy." To "walk on eggs" (which I only find in a dictionary of American idioms) is "to be very cautious." Which is exactly what you should be if you decide to "put all your eggs in one basket" - a risky policy with regard, say, to the stock market.

Only a Carnegie might risk such a thing. Indeed, that daring Scot quoted Mark Twain's expanded version of the idiom as one of his basic principles: What the American writer added was " ... and then watch the basket."

I wonder what turns a clever saying into an idiom? What makes it something a lot of people know and use, and not merely a good quotation occasionally remembered?

For example, it does not seem to have become a common thing to call someone "a hard-boiled egg." (Though "a tough nut" is idiomatic.) I can't find it in any dictionary, English or American. Why not?

The phrase did surface in a splendid quotation in the 1951 film "Ace in the Hole": "I've met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my time, but you're 20 minutes."

An American friend comments, however, that "we in America do call people 'hard-boiled,' as in 'a hard-boiled detective,' " and though that sounds like eggs, eggs aren't mentioned.

An idiom, though in wide use, is not necessarily a cliche. The eggy idioms already mentioned are not yet at the point of losing all meaning. An idiom is often just a more colorful way of saying something. …

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