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The egg, nature's own pre-packed food, centrepiece of more simple suppers than anyone has had hot dinners, essential ingredient of countless sauces, cakes, puddings, etc., symbol of wholesomeness (until the great salmonella-in-eggs scandal of the late 1980s), traces its name back to a prehistoric Indo-European source related to words for ‘bird’ (such as Latin avis). The Old English term was ǣg, which survived in Middle English as ey (plural eyren). But in the fourteenth century the related egg was borrowed from Old Norse. For a time the two forms competed with each other (William Caxton, in the prologue to his Book of Eneydos (1490), asked ‘What should a man in these days now write, eggs or eyren, certainly it is hard to please every man’), and the Norse form did not finally emerge as the winner until the late sixteenth century.

Human beings have no doubt been consuming wild birds' eggs since prehistoric times, but it was the domestication of the Indian jungle fowl and its gradual spread westward that brought the egg as we now know it, a standard dietary item, to Europe. The Romans brought it to Britain. Since then, of course, a variety of different birds' eggs have continued to be eaten at different seasons and places—ducks, geese, plovers, and gulls have all been popular sources, and quails' eggs enjoyed a vogue at the end of the twentieth century—but the chicken, now a scarcely animated egg-producing machine, leaves all competitors out of sight.

Subjects: Cookery, Food, and Drink.

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