Secret Library

The Real Meaning of the Phrase ‘Curate’s Egg’

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle examines the origins of an oft-misused phrase

‘Good in parts.’ ‘A mixed bag.’ This is what people generally mean when they use the phrase ‘curate’s egg’ to describe something. For instance, in book reviews: ‘A real curate’s egg, this. Parts of it are really good, such as the plot and pacing. However, the characterisation leaves a lot to be desired.’

But interestingly, when we use the phrase ‘curate’s egg’ in such a way, we’re actually – albeit unintentionally – damning the book (or whatever it is being discussed) not so much with faint praise as inadvertent damnation. Because the curious origins of ‘curate’s egg’ reveals a very different meaning.

For some phrases (most phrases, in fact) are anonymous in origin, and grow out of collective wisdom or popular slang, without a clear point of origin. Not so with ‘curate’s egg’, which derives from a cartoon drawn by one of the most celebrated cartoonists of the Victorian era. The man responsible for the cartoon was also a novelist, whose most successful novel gave its name (via a stage adaptation) to the trilby hat, but also the grandfather of another famous novelist. The cartoonist (and novelist) in question is George du Maurier (1834-96), or George Louis Palmella Busson du Maurier, to give him his full name.

The cartoon in question, ‘True Humility’, appeared in Punch magazine for which du Maurier drew many cartoons, from the 1860s onwards. The cartoon (see right), is the origin of the phrase ‘curate’s egg’, used to refer to something that is ‘good in parts’ – a mixed bag, in other words. Well that is what the phrase has come to mean, anyway.

But this meaning of ‘curate’s egg’ is something of a mangling of the original sentiment behind the cartoon. In ‘True Humility’, the curate, presented with a bad boiled egg by the vicar, is too polite to tell the truth and so assures him that ‘parts of it are excellent’. The joke, of course, is that if parts of an egg are no good, then the whole thing is ruined; an egg is not like a novel, where some parts might be perfectly palatable and others might stink. To mix my metaphors for a moment, a bad egg is a bad egg through and through, and rotten to the core.

Of course, language use changes and evolves over time to suit the needs of the user, and it would be wrong to say that the modern use of ‘curate’s egg’ is therefore itself ‘wrong’. The word ‘nice’, now used to refer to bland goodness or pleasantness, once meant ‘stupid’ or ‘ignorant’: it’s related to the word nescient, which means ‘not knowing’. Many Shakespeare phrases, from ‘stand on ceremony’ to ‘honoured more in the breach than the observance’, are now used in a very different way from their original meanings. But it seems a shame that the glorious irony of Du Maurier’s original cartoon has been lost: the very joke that makes using the phrase ‘curate’s egg’ worthwhile has been forgotten. One of the reasons I think the phrase often rankles when I hear it (mis)used is that, like people who say ‘between you and I’ and think they’re being clever, they’re using the phrase in an effort to look educated and cultured. ‘Look, I know the phrase “curate’s egg”: if you don’t know it, you should probably read more, because I know it and am going to use it.’ But the irony is that the people using the phrase should probably read more, starting with Du Maurier’s cartoon.

Du Maurier is far less famous now than his granddaughter who gave us such classic novels as Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, as well as the short story ‘Don’t Look Now’, which was also adapted for film. He is occasionally also mentioned in connection with Peter Pan, since his other grandchildren included the five boys who inspired J. M. Barrie’s play about the boy who would never grow up. But in the Victorian era his work made a real impact on the language, whether it’s the fashion for wearing ‘trilby’ hats, the notion of referring to someone who wields influence over others as a ‘Svengali’, or a nurse’s or doctor’s bedside manner. Yes: in another cartoon, du Maurier coined the term ‘bedside manner’ in a satirical cartoon on medicine. As if all this wasn’t enough, he had a minor role in the history of detective fiction: one of the very first detective novels, the 1862 book The Notting Hill Mystery (which predates the more famous claimant to that title, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone), was illustrated by him.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

3 Comments

  1. Mike Butler

    very interesting comments. Wasn’t he also the first Capt Hook in Peter Pan?

  2. How interesting. It’s not a phrase I’ve ever come across.

  3. Perhaps not as common in American idiom, but it also seems to be a useful shorthand surrounding a common phenomenon: the use of a selective praise to avoid rudeness or whole-hearted condemnation. In my state, we use the localism “Minnesota Nice”. The joke or cartoon would be that when presented with a bad or incomprehensible piece of art, a curate’s egg in the original meaning, the not-wishing-to-call-attention-to-themselves or make-a-fuss Minnesotan will say “That’s, ah,er…interesting.”

    Of course, we’re not using the original meaning of “nice” when we use that term either.

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