chicken & egg

First Things First

Easter has long passed (unless you’re Greek Orthodox), but I still have eggs on my mind.

Not that I spend a lot of time thinking about Easter—or eggs for that matter. Well, maybe that last part isn’t so true.

I have been thinking, however, about new beginnings. Spring (sort of) arrived in the Twin Cities, although it didn’t stay very long. And this is the inaugural post of my new project, the Mashed Radish. Here, I will spend a lot of time thinking about Easter or eggs—that is, the words Easter or eggs, for example.

This is a project about etymologies—about where words come from and how they change and develop over time. This is a project that believes that every word has a story to tell.

So, which came first: chicken or egg?


Chicken comes from the Old English (~450-1150 AD) ćīcen, pronounced something like “cheeken.” The OED cites a variant, ćycen, as late West Saxon, a dialect of Old English prevalent around the 11th century AD. It might be helpful for our purposes, then, to place ćīcen closer to 1000 AD. The word referred to any kind of “young fowl.” Over time, its meaning narrowed to refer to what we think of today as chicken more generally. Chick is attested around the mid-14th century.

I know, dear reader, you’re thinking of it. That other sense of chick. As the Online Etymological Dictionary points out, that derogatory term is first recorded in Sinclair Lewis’ 1927 novel Elmer Gantry:

He has determined that marriage would cramp his advancement in the church and that, anyway, he didn’t want to marry this brainless little fluffy chick, who would be of no help in impressing rich parishioners.

While we’re on a tangent: What does chicken bring to mind now? The feathered bird, all a-clucking and a-pecking or… pale, pink. and over-plump breast meat wrapped in cellophane and sold en masse at Super Target for about $2.00 a pop. I judge not; I know this from experience.

At least eggs still look like …well, even that’s debatable.

And while we’re at it, check out these astonishing numbers from the US Poultry and Egg Association concerning chicken and egg  consumption:

  • 247.7 eggs per capita in 2011
  • 58 pounds of boneless, trimmed per person, per year in 2010

Anyways, the Old English ćīcen goes back to the Germanic *kiukīnam. This comes from the root *keuk-, echoing the sound the bird makes. Onomatopoeia, it turns out, is not just a word you loved to say but could never spell when you studied poetry in grade school, but is also a major source of words. Many historical linguists see *keuk– also as the origin of the equally onomatopoeic cock.

You’ll be seeing a lot of asterisks in this project. The asterisk means that this term is unattested and is therefore hypothetical. That means that there is no record of the root or word documented in a real source (like in Elmer Gantry, say, not that anyone has ever really read that book), so linguists reconstruct the form as it could have been. They do this by comparing languages that come from a common ancestor language, a so-called proto-language.

Both chicken and cock have given us a lot of fun and foul language over the centuries. And both have proved metaphorical from the start, too, though in opposite directions. Chicken carried its cowardly connotations as early as the 14th century, and people likened the cock’s struts to arrogance earlier yet. The latter was cocc in Old English, once a common nickname in the Middle Ages for jaunty male underlings, as I learned from the Online Etymology Dictionary. Apparently it was a common personal name, too, although I’m guessing the arrival of the slang member of its lineage in the early 1600s might have changed that.

And what about this –en business? The suffix –en is a diminutive suffix chiefly applied to animals. See kitten. (Maiden uses it, too, but I’m not going to touch that). I think it’s neat, though, to imagine a time when we people had a need for such a suffix, especially in contrast to our severe alienation from food sources today.

Now, you might be thinking of some other words that contain this suffix. Oxen? That –en is the plural for Old English nouns in what is known as the weak declension. Children also uses it. Vixen? That’s the sole survivor of a Germanic feminine suffix. OK, what about men and women as plurals? We’ll have to save that for another day—or days, as those etymologies have engendered a lot of commentary.


The form of egg has essentially gone unchanged from the Old Norse egg, which took over the Middle English (~1150-1500 AD) ey during the 14th-century.

Egg points to an immediate, tangible, mundane, and ancient concept. There is evidence that the domesticated chicken reached Eastern/Mediterranean Europe in 3000 BC, and traveled to Western Europe in the first millennium BC. Some archaeologists even claim evidence of domestication in Southeast Asia as far back 6000 B.C.

So, English-speaking peoples must have been egg-headed for some time. How, then, does a Scandinavian word for such a quotidian thing supplant the Middle English term?

First off, Vikings had been raiding and settling in England from the late 700s to early 1000s, resulting in a lot of contact between English and Scandinavian language. English picked up a fair number of Scandinavian words—a phenomenon referred to as loanwords. In A History of the English Language, as Baugh and Cable (2002) note:

The Scandinavian and the English words were being used side by side, and the survival of one or the other must often have been a matter of chance (p. 100).

This must be the case for Old Norse egg and Middle English ey, two everyday words expressing the same concept. In this case, it seems to me that no word must have had any qualitative advantage. An extraordinary exception is the case of our third-person plural pronouns, they/their/them, Scandinavian words that pushed out the original, Old English equivalents. That’s influence.

You may notice, though, egg and ey look quite a bit a like. That’s because we are dealing with cognates, or words that come from a common root or origin. Here’s an overview of the lineage:

The Middle English ey is derived from the Old English æg, which, along with the Old Norse egg, goes back to ei, as seen in Dutch and German now and in the past. Etymologists trace ei back to the Proto-Germanic *ajja(m) or *ajja(z) and even further back to Proto-Indo-European *owyo, *oyyo. (Please note: different dictionaries transcribe these roots, as well as those that follow,  differently. I’ll talk about this Proto-Indo-European business in a later post.)

This form produced a lot of cognates:

    • Latin, ovum (Fr., oeuf; Sp., huevo)
    • Greek, oión 
    • Irish, og
    • Welsh, wy
    • Old Church Slavonic, aja
    • Russian, jajco

Now, here’s the crazy part to me. Etymologists speculate this ancient hypothetical root for egg might reach further back to an ancient, hypothetical root for…


Sanskrit has vis, Latin has avis, both referring to birds, possibly from a Proto-Indo-European root, *owis or *awi. You might see owl here, but that creature is named in imitation of its cry. See ululation.

First Things First

Well, which came first?

So, etymologically, chicken as such seems technically older in the English language, but, given the strengths of cognates of eggs, not really.

For me, these etymologies turn up something deeper. I’d guess that ancient man would observe and name the sound of a bird—hooting and clucking and cawing and cuckooing and chirping and twittering and shrieking—before they did so for their eggs, what with nests and incubation. And I can imagine metonymy (part for whole) playing a role, too.

But this small notion that the egg is the bird suggests an ancient, Aristotelian metaphysics—ways in which early man’s observations of natural phenomena, e.g., eggs becoming birds, became encoded in language. Or at least Indo-European languages. I’d be interested to see any egg/bird connections in other language families and in cultures that saw domesticated fowl later (or never).

Eggs are birds, endings are beginnings. Maybe the egg wins out after all— might these etymologies suggest anything how these ancient experiences became encoded in our earliest creation myths? After all, how do you like your cosmic eggs?

Since we can never know these things with certainty, I suppose I like mine scrambled.

m ∫ r ∫