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If you must know, lexicographically speaking, the egg came first

April, 2011

As we approach Easter, it is as good a time as any to ponder what came first: the chicken or the egg?

For ancient philosophers, this question evoked the basic puzzle about the origins of the cosmos and humans. Aristotle said, “If there has been a first man he must have been born without father or mother—which is repugnant to nature. For there could not have been a first egg to give a beginning to birds, or there should have been a first bird which gave a beginning to eggs; for a bird comes from an egg.”

To which I say, “That’s your opinion, Ari.”

What is fact rather than opinion is the lexicographic answer to the age-old enigma. Egg comes before chicken. Now pedants might argue that because chicken starts with “c”and “egg” with “e,” ergo chicken precedes egg in a dictionary, ergo I am lexicographically incorrect. I, however, am referring to the dates the respective words entered our language. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “egg” is first recorded between 805 and 831 and was originally spelled aeg, and had several plural forms including eyren, eyron and ayren. Over the next number of centuries, it was spelled in many different ways, including ey, ay and most commonly ei. The spelling “egg” was imported from Scandinavia in the 14th century and for about a century ei and “egg” competed for supremacy. In 1490, William Caxton wrote, “What shoulde a man in these dayes now wryte ‘egges’ or ‘eyren’, certaynly it is hard to playse every man.”

The word chicken, on the other hand, doesn’t appear until the year 930 and its first recorded citation is in the Lindisfarne Gospels in the form of the word cicceno. Many similar forms of chicken are found in the Germanic languages, such as kuiken from Dutch and kylling from Danish and Norwegian.

It is generally believed that all these variations come from an ancient word keuk, which may have given rise to the word “cock.” If this is so, etymologist John Ayto in Dictionary of Word Origins informs us that “chicken amounts etymologically to a little cock.” The word cock was the original word for the domestic fowl and it first surfaces in 897.

In 950, the term “hen” surfaces to refer to the female of the species and “cock” becomes restricted to males. “Chicken” originally referred to the young of the domestic fowl and it only became the definitive word for domestic fowl of any age in the early 19th century.

I will take this opportunity to answer two other “what came first” riddles, namely orange the fruit vs. orange the colour, and ass the animal vs. ass the buttocks. The fruit beats out the colour by three centuries as the fruit “orange” is first recorded in English at the beginning of the 14th century, whereas the colour only surfaces early in the 17th century. The Sanskrit word naranga, “orange tree,” eventually morphed into the Old French orenge, which then came into English as “orange.” In the Middle Ages, the Seville orange was brought by the Arabs (called naranj in Arabic) to Sicily from where it was introduced to the rest of Europe.

In the case of the two senses of “ass,” the answer as to precedence is more complicated. “Ass” the animal is first recorded in the year 1000, deriving from the Old English assa, which has no known cognate in any other language.

Seeing that the term “ass” as derriere only emerged in the 19th century, “ass” the animal clearly precedes “ass” the posterior. But this latter sense is really a morphed form of “arse,” which came into the language along with the “ass” in the year 1000. So “ass” became “donkey” and “arse” became “ass.” Why? In many languages the letter “r” stops being pronounced when it precedes the letter “s.” This occurred in many places in England as well as parts of New England and the southern U.S. Thus, “horse” could be pronounced as “hoss” and “arse” as “ass.”

It just would not do for “lass” to rhyme with the new pronunciation of “arse” and by 1770 “decent folk” started to replace “ass” with “donkey ” in their everyday speech. By 1840, the use of “ass” to refer to the animal was restricted mostly to scriptural usage.

In any case, please remember to put your eggs in the same basket before you count your chickens.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.



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