To EGG ON means to incite or urge on, or instigate an action, especially with regard to something foolish or dangerous, encourage, provoke. <“He egged his brother on to throw a snowball at the teacher.”> The earliest recorded use of the verb ‘egg’ in this sense was in 1200, but ‘egg on’ did not appear in print until 1566 in Drant’s ‘Horace Satyres: “Ile egge them on speake some thynge.”
The expression ‘to egg on’ has nothing to do with hen’s eggs or any kind of eggs as one might suspect. It also is not derived, as one bogus story claims, from the Norman invaders pricking Anglo-Saxon prisoners in the butt with their ‘ecgs’ (their spears) when urging them to move faster. The verb ‘egg’ before 1200 was ‘eggen’ which was borrowed from the Old Norse verb ‘eggja,’ to incite, or ‘to edge’ (as in ‘push toward the edge’ until some action is undertaken). To ‘egg’ someone meant the same thing as to ‘to edge’ someone and was used that way until circa 1566, when the expression was lengthened ‘to egg on.’ ‘Egg on’ and ‘edge on’ were used interchangeable but the verb ‘edge’ eventually became obsolete and today only ‘egg on’ remains.
(Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Oxford English Dictionary, Barnhart Concise Dictionary of etymology, Urdang’s Picturesque Expressions)<1594 “Sibils and Bacchants . . . men think are EGGED ON by some divine inspiration.”—Huarte's Examination of Men's Wits (1596) by Carew, page 45>
<1613 “The Duke EDGED his soldiers, by declaring unto them the noble works of their ancestors.”—in Harl. Misc. (Malh.). III. page 141>
<1691 “Mathew Hazard [was] a main Incendiary in the Rebellion, violently EGGED ON by his wife.”—Athenæ Oxoniense by Wood, II. page 328>
<1852 “Schemers and flatterers would EGG HIM ON.”—The History of Henry Esmond (1876) by Thackeray, II. x. page 207>
Ken G – November 23, 2004