A middle-schooler who accidentally called their teacher “Mom” could be described as having “egg on their face.” In other words, they just made a fool of themselves and now they’re looking duly embarrassed. It’s not clear exactly why the phrase egg on your face came to mean humiliated. But it probably has to do with the notion that any situation in which one ends up with an eggy face is pretty humiliating.
Chucking eggs—especially rotten ones—at someone you don’t like is a time-honored tradition that dates at least as far back as the Middle Ages. Prisoners in town squares, talentless performers, persecuted religious folk all have something in common: They’ve all been subjected to egg-related abuse over the centuries.
Women have even used the tactic to combat harassment. In 1877, after a man “circulated ugly stories” about a Miss Hadlock of Vermont, she tossed pepper in his eyes, beat him with a raw-hide, and “wound up the concert by smashing rotten egg in his face,” according to Kentucky’s The Hickman Courier. When a “traveling man” wouldn’t stop stalking a few young women in Connecticut in 1901, “they armed themselves with fresh eggs” which they “hurled … into his face.” As North Dakota’s Courier Democrat recounted the incident, “A crowd gathered to laugh at his discomfeiture and the masher fled, leaving his hat behind him.”
When Breakfast Betrays You
Sporting a bit of egg left over from breakfast is also blush-inducing—and in the early 20th century, it might’ve even earned you a shoutout in the local paper.
“A well-known professional man of Emporia always has some dried egg on his face. He evidently eats eggs for breakfast every morning, and there are people who believe that he must eat them out of a trough,” The Kansas City Star reported in 1909.
During that era, when “cold storage” was still relatively new and eggs weren’t always cheap or easy to come by—particularly in the winter—a little egg residue near your mouth could be a sign that you were living large, and maybe unwisely so.
“An Atchison young man, who lives down town, was upbraided this morning for being extravagant,” Kansas’s Atchison Weekly Globe reported in 1911. “‘Why, you had egg on your face this morning when you came to work,’ he was told. The young man explained it was mustard from a 5-cent ham sandwich.”
A Wisconsin news story from 1908 mentioned a man who was seen with egg on his face, prompting someone to exclaim that he “must be a millionaire.” When the man overheard the comment and went to wipe the smudge away, another onlooker said, “Don’t do that, give it to me.”
While the novelty of eating eggs faded over the next few decades, the novelty of teasing someone for accidentally leaving a little on their face did not. It made for a good April Fools’ joke, too. “Someone will doubtless tell you there’s egg on your face, a hole in the seat of your trousers, and dirt on the back of your neck,” a California newspaper article said ahead of the holiday in 1937.
Too Eggy for a Close-Up
In short, getting caught with egg on your face appears to have been a common enough source of mortification among early 20th-century Americans that it became an idiom. This transition from literal to figurative may have been kickstarted by 1940s youths, as evidenced by a 1941 article in which teenage actress Jane Withers discussed a screenplay she co-wrote.
“A peek at the script turned up these gems, which Jane says are in the vocabulary of most any 15-year-old these days,” the story said, citing “with egg on my face” as one expression “describing embarrassment.”
It also seems possible that Withers picked up that particular phrase on set, where people used it to describe an actor’s “vaguely embarrassed expression caused by too long a period without lines or a lag in action,” per a 1946 Boston Globe article. Though that piece implied that Alfred Hitchcock coined egg on your face (at least in its filmmaking context), it’s also been attributed to CBS executive Byron Paul.
All that said, a competing theory suggests that dogs actually helped originate the expression. As Michael Quinion explained on his World Wide Words blog, dogs have been known to steal eggs from farms, and if any of these so-called “egg-sucking” mutts were caught with a wet, yolk-soaked muzzle, they might’ve indeed looked abashed. But considering the wealth of references to egg on human faces, it’s probably more likely that the phrase came from human faux pas—not those committed by canines.