Famous Sayings #146 — ‘Good Egg/Bad Egg’

April 21, 2019

When you told assigned Brandon to this team, I didn’t know what to expect, but he was all that you said he was and more. I’ve never been on a more productive team and it’s all thanks to Brandon’s input. He really is a good egg.

Johnny, the school yard bully, is a bad egg.

Since April 21, 2019 is Easter Sunday, I figured I would look at a term that dealt with a theme of this holy day: eggs. Based on the title, this looks like a two-fer, but it’s really a three-for-one. There’s another type of “egg” that I’ll mention in the post, but it’s not a common phrase in the United States.

What Is a Bad Egg?

The term bad egg is used to describe a person or thing that fails to meet expectations (Martin). Much like people used to find bad eggs among those they purchased, a person or think might look good on first appearance, but they will disappoint in the end.

A secondary meaning of “bad egg,” which is more commonly alluded to, strictly applies to people. Often, when someone says someone else is a bad egg, the first person is saying that the other person is corrupt, dishonest, unpleasant, or unreliable person (Dictionary.com).

What Is a Good Egg?

The term good egg is the exact opposite of a bad egg. Thus, when you call someone a good egg, you are acknowledging someone’s good character, dependability, and you are saying that you are fond of that person (Vocabulary.com).

When Were the Terms ‘Good Egg’ and ‘Bad Egg’ Coined?

The term “bad egg” was coined first, and various sources concur that it arose sometime in the mid-nineteenth century. According to an entry at Grammar Monster, the term “bad egg” first appeared in the novel Captain Priest by Samuel A. Hammett. (The Wonderful Adventures of Captain Priest was published in 1855, which is mid-century.) Some other sources cited the term as a bit of slang that came from English public schools, but it likely was inspired by food.

As late as the early half of the 20th century, those who bought eggs would commonly find that they had rotten eggs among the lot. Even cookbooks from over 50 years ago advised cooks to crack eggs in a separate container so that a bad egg wouldn’t spoil the whole recipe. This was the problem people had to deal with because they didn’t have as many quality controls back then. It is rare now to have bad eggs in a package, unless one tries to use eggs after their expiration date.

The expression “good egg” came about in the late nineteenth century, about fifty years after “bad egg” was recorded. Both terms started as public-school slang but “good egg” started as a “humorous inversion of bad egg” (Quinion).

What’s Another Type of Egg That Applies to a Person or Thing?

While I was doing the research for this post, I came across the term “curate’s egg.” This is not commonly used in the United States because many people don’t know what a curate is.

In short, a curate is a member of the clergy who serves as an assistant to a vicar or parish priest. While curates are ordained ministers, they are “at the bottom of the priestly pecking order,” so they receive little pay and they have no job security. A curate may be a man or, in rare cases, a woman (Quinion).

Now, the term “curate’s egg” comes from a George du Maurier cartoon called True Humility, which was printed in Punch, a satirical British magazine, on November 9, 1895. In the cartoon, the Right Reverend Host says, “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad Egg, Mr. Jones! The Curate responds, “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!” (Martin).

The cartoon led to catchphrases such as “Parts of it are excellent,” and “good in parts.” These catchphrases were recorded from early in the twentieth century (Quinon).

What Does Curate’s Egg Mean?

Two sources (Gary Martin and Michael Quinion) were the only ones I consulted for “curate’s egg.” Their definitions may differ, if only slightly.

According to Martin’s definition, a “curate’s egg” is “Something bad that is called good out of politeness or timidity.” The original meaning of a curate’s egg was meant to describe something that, even if partly good, is ruined by its bad part(s). Today, the term is just used to describe something partly good and bad (like “a mixed bag”).

Quinion also said that “curate’s egg” means that something is partly good and partly bad, so that is “not wholly satisfactory.” He said that the meaning is not “something discreetly declared to be partly good but in fact thoroughly bad,” but that definition would be the literal interpretation of the term.

Maybe there isn’t much disagreement there. What do you think?

Works Cited

“Bad egg | Define Bad egg at Dictionary.com.” Dictionary.com. Web. Retrieved 21 Apr 2019. <https://www.dictionary.com/browse/bad-egg>.

“bad egg.” Vocabulary.com. Web. Retrieved 21 April 2019. <https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/bad%20egg>.

“Good egg | Define Good egg at Dictionary.com.” Dictionary.com. Web. Retrieved 20 April 2019. <https://www.dictionary.com/browse/good-egg>.

“good egg.” Vocabulary.com. Web. Retrieved 20 April 2019. <https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/good%20egg>.

Martin, Gary. “A bad egg.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 20 Apr 2019. <https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/53750.html>.

Martin, Gary. “A curate’s egg.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 20 Apr 2019. <https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/163300.html>.

“The Origin of the Saying A Bad Egg / A Good Egg.” Grammar Monster. Web. Retrieved 20 Apr 2019. <https://www.grammar-monster.com/sayings_proverbs/good_egg_bad_egg.htm>.

Quinion, Michael. “Curate’s egg.” World Wide Words.” 17 June 2000. Web. Retrieved 21 April 2019. <http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-cur1.htm>.

Quinion, Michael. “Good egg.” World Wide Words. 25 May 2002. Web. Retrieved 21 April 2019. <http://www.worldwidewords.org/topicalwords/tw-goo1.htm>.

Super User. “Hammett, Samuel Adams.” Texas Authors Institute. Texas Authors Institute of History, Inc. 14 Mar 2016. Web. Retrieved 21 Apr 2019. <https://texasauthors.institute/index.php/features/authors/e-h/h/hammett-samuel-adams>.

Various Authors. “Good egg.” The Phrase Finder. 24 July 2005. Online Forum. Retrieved 21 Apr 2019. <https://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/42/messages/904.html>.

Have any thoughts on the subject? Time’s yours.

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