Let's Resolve in the New Year to Stop Using That Expression About Breaking Eggs and Making Omelets

A Blog About Language
Dec. 30 2013 11:17 AM

Let's Resolve in the New Year to Stop Using That Expression About Breaking Eggs and Making Omelets

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They say you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. They should stop saying that.

Photo Illustration by Adam Berry/Getty Images

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest citation in English of the proverbial necessity of egg-breaking for the purpose of making an omelet is from a 1796 issue of Walker's Hibernian Magazine, an Irish monthly that billed itself as a "compendium of entertaining knowledge." Among the world's vast knowledge that Mr. Walker deemed entertaining that year were "some particulars reflecting the capture and death of Charette, the famous Royalist general of La Vendée."

François de Charette was one of the leaders of a Royalist counter-revolt in the Vendée region of France during the French Revolution. The War in the Vendée, as it's now known, lasted several years and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. In March of 1796, Charette was captured by republican forces and put on trial, during which, according to Walker's account:

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It was remarked to him that he had caused the death of a great many persons. Yes, he replied, omlets are not made without breaking eggs.

Charette, you'll be shocked to learn, was soon after executed by firing squad. As for the metaphor—especially tasteless in his rendering since the broken "eggs" were dead human beings—it originated in French (on ne saurait faire d'omelette sans casser des œufs) as early as the 1740s and made its way from there into English. But it seems Charette was onto something. A scan of the OED's later citations suggests that the expression has an unfortunate fondness for body counts.

In late 1897, several tribes along what is now the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan raised arms against the British colonial government and took control of the Khyber Pass, which the British then determined to take back. A correspondent for The Times of London described in matter-of-fact detail an especially grueling march of the British Indian Army, on the way to a secure camp, during which temperatures fell well below freezing and "it rained and sleeted and snowed throughout the night." Many of the support personnel—locals who were brought along to carry stretchers and other equipment and who were not accustomed to the rigors of a military campaign—were "frozen by the cold and terrified by the bullets whistling overhead" and "collapsed and died by the way":

However, omelettes cannot be made without breaking eggs, and war cannot be waged without losses of this kind occurring.

In 1920, New Zealand-born adventurer Charles Arthur Whitmore Monckton published Some Experiences of a New Guinea Resident Magistrate, in which he recounted a conversation with a surveyor who would accompany him on an expedition near the eastern tip of what is now Papua New Guinea. The trip would take them around Mt. Lamington, which Monckton cautioned was "the haunt of some particularly venomous tribes, who are perpetually fighting, and who regard every stranger as an enemy to be slain at sight." He then asked the surveyor:

Now, what I want to know is this, have you any conscientious scruples about shedding blood? You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, and you can't take an expedition past Mt. Lamington without some one being killed on one side or the other. Personally I have a strong aversion to being coarsely speared in the midriff or rudely clubbed on the head … and should prefer the casualties to be on the other side.

In 1985, after two people turned up dead at a dinner party—one stabbed in the kitchen with a dagger and the other bludgeoned in the hall with a candlestick—Colonel Mustard suggested that the remaining guests split up to search the house and told a frightened woman, "This is war, Peacock! Casualties are inevitable. You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs—every cook will tell you that!" To which Mrs. Peacock replied, "But look what happened to the cook!"

Okay, that last example is from the movie Clue, but you get my point. The metaphor was born of blood and has steeped in it ever since. In fact, it is often mistakenly attributed to Joseph Stalin, one of the most prolific mass murderers of the 20th century, as evidence of the callous rationalization of self-deluded dictators. The truth, it turns out, is not far from the fiction, which can be traced back to a 1932 Time Magazine article, in which Stalin's "Right-Hand-Man-Of-The-Moment," Comrade Lazar Kaganovitch, was quoted as saying, "Why wail over broken eggs when we are trying to make an omelette!"

That the metaphor appears Zelig-like in so many theaters of war suggests, perhaps, that it's best suited to combat. When dressed up in civilian clothes, after all, it tends to tear at the seams. Earlier this year, Eonline published a story about the small controversy that erupted after pop star Justin Bieber was "caught on video urinating in a mop bucket and spraying cleaning fluid onto a picture of Bill Clinton while saying 'Fuck Bill Clinton.'" Bieber later apologized to Clinton, who reportedly was gracious and encouraged the tween idol to use his celebrity for good. All's well that ends well, right? Or, as Eonline put it:

They say you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and at least the Biebs was left with an omelet today.

Huh?! So Bieber made a series of alcohol-fueled decisions, the broken eggs presumably, and was faced with the consequences of his own bad behavior. But what exactly is the omelet? Undoing the self-inflicted damage? It's not as though any great good came of the incident, unless you count a probable spike in web traffic for TMZ, which broke the story.

In any case, eggs are broken with the foreknowledge that an omelet will result. Even if the Biebs had later that night blundered onto a prescription for peace on Earth, it's hard to argue that drunkenly pissing in a restaurant kitchen is a known, necessary ill along the way to a better world. Let's be clear. One must break eggs in order to make an omelet. It's the rare short-order cook who takes the time to first poke holes in either end of the egg and then carefully blow out the insides to leave the shell intact. Breaking eggs is part of the process. In fact, this New York Times recipe for "Mushroom Ragoût Omelet" lists it as Step 1: "Break the eggs into a bowl and beat with a fork or a whisk until frothy." Insulting a former president, on the other hand, is entirely elective.

But the expression has an even more existential flaw, one so fundamental that it's hard to imagine how it came to be coined at all. At no time in its nearly 300-year history has egg-breaking been taboo. One can't make an omelette without breaking eggs implies, in the words of the OED, that "it is not possible to accomplish something worthwhile without adverse effects elsewhere." But who believes egg-breaking to be adverse? They're bound to be broken eventually, either by us or by a hatchling, and there's plenty more where they came from.

The metaphor is at best offensive, when flippantly devaluing the human cost of war, and at worst nonsensical, collapsing beneath its own fragile assumptions. I say we toss it.

Mike Vuolo is senior producer of podcasts and editor of @lexiconvalley.