Monday 19 December 2011

An Egg Dance

Over on the Dear Dogberry page, a reader has asked why we have the phrase walking on eggshells when walking on eggs would make much more sense. For myself, I can't understand why you would do either. However, upon investigation I've discovered that walking on eggs was the original version of the phrase. The OED records it from 1734, where as the walking on eggshell doesn't pop up until 1860.

A much more amusing variant is a thing called an egg dance, which can be performed at home, but probably not on your best carpet. All you'll need is a bunch of eggs, which you arrange on the floor, and a blindfold, which you put over your eyes. You now dance around trying not to tread upon any eggs however lightly.

Egg dancing gets a mention in a sixteenth century play called The Longer Thou Livest, The More Fool Thou Art.

Upon my one foot prettily can I hop
And dance it trimly about an egg.

And there's a good description of it from 1801:

This performance was common enough about thirty years back, and was well received at Sadler's Wells; where I saw it exhibited, not by simply hopping round a single egg, but in a manner that much increased the difficulty. A number of eggs, I do not precisely recollect how many, but I believe about twelve or fourteen, were placed at certain distances marked upon the stage; the dancer taking his stand, was blind-folded, and a hornpipe being played in the orchestra, he went through all the paces and figures of the dance, passing backwards and forwards between the eggs without touching one of them.

As you can imagine, an egg-dance became a byword for any intricate and difficult task, and makes a lot more sense than walking on either eggs or eggshells.

Scrambled eggs at the Inky Fool offices

P.S. The first part of the Etymologicon was read out by Hugh Dennis on Radio 4 this morning. You can listen to it by following this link.


  1. HOW HOW HOW is it that this is first I have heard about this book and blog ??!!! Why is this book not stacked 24 high at the local W@ter$t*nes ??

    If I had gotten into my bath just a few minutes earlier this morning I would have missed the best 15 minutes of radio I have heard in A VERY LONG TIME !!!!

    This is the problem with books. We have been hearing about the films "W.E." and "The Iron Lady" since the dawn of pre-history...

    But I only found out that Stephen Pile had a new 'Book Of Heroic Failures" by a chance read of Simon Hoggart's column...

    And it was only the serendipitous synchronicity of listening to Radio 4 this morning that allowed to chance upon this.

    You need to 'ave a word' with your publishers to start 'banging the drum' for this rather more loudly. I mean, the cover will stand out a bit in the local bookshop when they stock it.

  2. Really? It's been very pleasantly betabled in almost every branch of Waterstones that I've been into. But each branch is different, I suppose, and I haven't had a chance to do much investigation beyond central London. The best thing is to ask for it at the counter, then put on a fake moustache and a funny accesnt and ask for it again. Keep varying this until they decide that it's the Next Big Thing. That's what I do, anyway.

  3. I must agree with the anonymous poster from 19/12 12:57. Had I not had the fortune to spend an extra half an hour in bed this morning, I would never have heard of your book. On the strength of the radio four reading alone I can recommend the book to several friends, and have bought myself a copy. I am very much looking forward to reading it!

  4. Clean, but lazy your followers?

  5. Well, that puts them one up on me.

  6. The mind boggles. How does one boggle anyway? Etymologically speaking, that is.

  7. M.H. Forsyth - I went in to Waterstones near 'The Galleries' mall in Bristol and a/ They didn't know how to spell it, so I had to key it into their computer and b/ when asked what it was about, the person didn't know the meaning of the word 'etymology', then c/ It was hidden away in their 'reference' section with a zillion other dictionaries and the like and I didn't have time to wade through and try to find it, if they couldn't be @r$ed to make it easy to find...

    Still, there's always Amazon, but that is really the whole problem for the bookseller, is it not ?

  8. M.H. Forsyth - On a related point, I'm half tempted to try that trick for "Mrs Cameron's Diary" - the funniest, fabbiest, most wonderful book this year.

    If it doesn't make you 'LOL', check your pulse, as you may have expired...

  9. The Radio 4 reading was great, Mark. Hugh Dennis had just the right tone. I'm seriously hoping someone gets me your book for Christmas - if not, I'm out at the shops on Boxing Day ...

  10. Terrific book of the week!
    I would love an Audible version

  11. Antipodean readers are well aware of this fine work- the book has had great reviews in the Sydney Morning Herald and other papers.
    I have found it unputdownable, a real feast for anyone who loves works on words, and very funny indeed.
    A real fnid, as our proofreader friend says...

  12. Heard the broadcast this morning by chance, as I have not heard of this site before. Have ordrered the book already, and put this site in favouites.Great stuff.

  13. I couldn't find the book in the St Andrews Waterstones before Christmas. Again it was shelved in an obscure corner.