the curate's egg was [DWJ] Best Of.

Colin Fine colin at
Sun Jan 29 06:03:56 EST 2006

minnow at wrote:
> In <8127abadb38c8a0825b5766a46ddd232 at>, Otter Perry wrote:
>> On Jan 26, 2006, at 2:08 PM, Irina Rempt wrote:
>>> Yes, me too; but I rather like _Twisting the Rope_ too. Bit of a
>>> curate's egg, though; parts of it are excellent and parts are just too
>>> much. Too much of what I can't lay my finger on, I'd have to reread it
>>> for that and the reread pile is a foot high as it is.
>> Oooooh!  I fall at the feet of anyone who can describe something
>> as a "curate's egg."
>> [For those who are not familiar with the origin of this phrase,
>>  there was a cartoon in Punch in the nineteenth century, one
>>  of those with an ornate drawing and several lines of dialogue.]
>> [The picture is of the bishop's breakfast table.  The bishop
>>  says to the curate, "I'm afraid, Mr. Smith [or whatever], that
>>  have gotten a bad egg.]
>> ["I assure you, your grace, parts of it are excellent."]
> It is entitled "True Humility".
> The point being that a boiled egg is never slightly bad: if it's bad at
> all it's bad all through and well-nigh inedible.  It also smells
> horrible, which is how the bishop would have known it was bad.
> The curate, afraid of his bishop and particularly of his bishop's wife,
> (who appears in the picture, and I don't blame him for being afraid of
> her!) cannot bring himself to say "Yes, your grace, it's inedible" or
> ask for another.  He's eating something disgusting because he's in awe
> of his superior, and pretending that it's not that bad really.  He'll
> probably be sick later.
> Calling something a "curate's egg" is calling it completely useless,
> bad all through.
Er ... No.

While your account and exegesis of the original cartoon are faultless, 
you are falling into the common trap of those who are very careful with 
their language, of assuming that etymology tells you anything reliable 
about meaning.

In modern English (I suspect, since very shortly after the appearance of 
the cartoon, though I haven't attempted to research the matter), calling 
something a "curate's egg" is _not_ calling it completely useless, and 
bad all through: it is on the contrary claiming that it is a mixed bag, 
exactly as Irina intended.

If you insist on using words or phrases in idiosyncratic ways you risk 
misunderstanding and being misunderstood. And using a phrase in its 
original sense counts as 'idiosyncratic' if the meaning of the phrase 
has subsequently changed.

Please give Diana my congratulations when you see her.


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