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Words Jan. 12

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Kristi Alexander asks, “Is it egg on or agg on when you mean to encourage or incite somebody? I say agg on, figuring that agg is short for aggravate. But when I see it written, it’s always egg on.”

It’s egg on, although John Ciardi, in his “Second Browser’s Dictionary,” says that much earlier it was edge on. Edge on is now obsolete. To egg on is “to spur, to prod,” according to Ciardi, and the root sense is “to urge on by poking with a sharp instrument.” He finds the origin in a Middle English word that meant “to prick.”

Random House goes back to Middle English too, although its explanation of the origin of egg on is a little different. Even the authorities disagree over some of these things, so there’s no reason for Ms. Alexander to feel that she has egg on her face. But we might as well take that up too, while we’re here in the egg department.

Egg on one’s face is “humiliation or embarrassment resulting from having said or done something foolish or unwise.” Random House doesn’t even try to explain where the phrase came from. Ciardi says, “I cannot find the idiom in Britain and am left to conclude, on imperfect evidence, that it is American only and probably late 19th century. It seems, clear, however that the root image is of an actor or orator pelted with garbage and rotten eggs and so driven offstage.”

Bill Womack writes: “I recently received a fund-raising letter from a political committee that pointed out that all Republicans were expected to ‘tow a strict Republican line.’ What’s next in our semi-literate society? I’m watching now for ‘toe that barge, lift that bail’ to appear in print.” One toes the line and tows the barge, as Mr. Womack is pointing out. One who’s in trouble posts bail. Oddly, the actual line from “Old Man River” that Mr. Womack alludes to is “tote that barge, lift that bale.” Was this a mistake on Oscar Hammerstein’s part? To tote is “to carry, as on one’s back or in one’s arms.” It’d take an awfully big man to tote a barge. I doubt that even Paul Robeson could have done it.

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