Which Came First, the Word or the Thing?

Now, finally, the answer to one of the eternal questions. The really important one: Chicken came first, perhaps hundreds of years before egg.

The word chicken entered the English language in Old English, sometime before a.d. 950. The Humpty-come-lately egg didn’t arrive until sometime before 1340. And, interestingly, people were egging things on before the present word for eggs came into the language. The noun egg and the verb egg originate from different sources. So, to answer that other eternal question, “Which came first—the egg or the egg?”, the verb surfaced first—probably in the thirteenth century. …

The appearance of individual words … often has little to do with the appearance of the thing, action or concept the word describes. Oblong white things appeared from the bottoms of chickens long before there were eggs or egges or eggys. So, just because the word didn’t exist at a specific time doesn’t imply that what the word describes didn’t exist at that time; often, they just had different names. (Before they were eggs, they were eyren.)

William Brohaugh

Transcribed by me from page 1 of my hardback copy of English Through the Ages, © 1998 Writer’s Digest Books.


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  1. And when the spanish-speaking chicken came to the New World, it engendered man’s flight to the Moon.