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Where did the curate's egg originate

00:00 Mon 02nd Apr 2001 |

asks MissDon:

A.
The expression, 'like the curate's egg; good in parts' originated with a Punch cartoon published on November 9, 1895 (vol CIX), which was entitled 'True Humility'. It shows the curate, Mr Jones, straining to finish his boiled egg while rather nervously breakfasting with the Bishop and his wife. The Bishop says, 'I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones.' The curate anxiously replies, 'Oh no, my Lord, I assure you, parts of it are excellent.' A good joke - and a recycled one.


Q. It had been done before
A.
Yes, by the same artist, actually. In the Punch July issue of the same year, a Scottish clergyman is shown congratulating a very large parishioner on looking so fit. The parishioner replies, 'I'm well in parts, but I'm ower muckle [too big] to be well all over at the same time.'


Q. When is the phrase used
A.
It has become a clich and is often misused. It is usually quoted as 'like the Curate's Egg, good in parts,' i.e. describing something which has both good and bad aspects. However, an egg is either good or bad and the curate's egg is most certainly bad all the way through.


Q. Is the curate just being polite by suggesting that parts of it are edible
A.
Possibly. Or he could be a romantic who sees the good in all things. Or a sycophant who is desperate not to cause offence. Or the non-complaining sort who'd accept anything he was offered. Or, perhaps he just had a very strong stomach...


Q. So, how should the expression be used
A.
It should refer to something that is bad through and through - or, at least, has so few good parts that there is no hope for it. It is more of a formidable criticism than a half-hearted compliment.


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By Sheena Miller


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