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Word of the Day: EI, egg

Vrolijk Pasen, Happy Easter one and all. Have you found all the hidden eggs in your garden yet? While I am writing this I hear the church bells ringing and the children running around the huge garden of the church opposite my house searching for EIEREN (eggs):


‘Hier!’ Nee, hier! Dat is niet eerlijk. Ik zag het ei het eerst.’ (Here, no here, it’s not fair, I saw the egg first.)

These children were told that the Paashaas (the Easter bunny) had put the eggs there when they were asleep. What a strange idea! A bunny concealing eggs… If you want to know where the Paashaas phenomenon comes from read my posting of yesteryear’s Easter.

This year I’ll have a look at the word EI (egg), yes another ‘Het-woord’.

Why EI? Because it’s Easter again, yohoho! So ‘een ei hoort erbij’ (an egg should be part of it). This slogan must have been invented by a poetic poultry farmer ages ago, because my grandmother, who died in 1992, used to say it every time she served breakfast. In the good old days of yore when I was young (the fifties) my grandmother believed that we should eat lots of eggs and drink gallons of milk for reasons of health . How wrong they were! Now we know that an excess of milk and eggs can cause all kinds of problems and should be consumed like alcohol ‘met mate’ (in moderation).

Anyway, Easter without eggs is unthinkable. What has the egg to do with the biblical Easter story in which the dead Christ was discovered to be vanished from his grave in a mysterious way? It only makes sense if I read this story metaphorically: Christ was given new life, like an egg is supposed to give new life. ‘New life’ is what we’re supposed to think when we find the concealed egg, because most birds lay their eggs in spring.


According to Nicoline van der Sijs’ Etymologiebank (a wonderful source of knowledge for which I am very grateful) the word EI is related to Greek ‘ōión’ and Latin ‘ōvum’. In 1992 M. Philippa published an essay called ‘Het ei in de taal’ (the egg in language). The original Indo-European word for EI is probably related to a word meaning ‘bird’ which is ‘avis’ in Latin.EI was ’ǽg’ in Old English and its plural form was ‘ǽgru’. In Old Saxon, Middle Dutch, Dutch and German the word has always been ‘ei’. The word ‘egg’ comes from Old Norse. Both ‘ei’ and ‘egg’ were used in medieval Britain, but in different dialects. In 1490 the first English printer and publisher Caxton complained that he did not know what to print:

‘What sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges or eyren, certaynly it is harde to playse every man.’  (What should a man now write in these days, eggs or ‘eyren’, surely it hard to please everyone)

In his preface to one of his books Caxton tells the story of a merchant from the North of England who wants to buy eggs from a woman in the South of England.

‘And specyally he axyed after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she understode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she understood hym we. (And he asked specifically for eggs, and the good woman said that she spoke no French, and the merchant got angry for he could not speak French either, but he wanted eggs and she could not understand him. And then at last another person said that he wanted ‘eyren’. Then the good woman said that she understood him well.)

Eier, einen en eieren

So the English now talk about an ‘egg’ and the Dutch say ‘ei’. The plural should have been ‘eien’ but, as you know, the Dutch say: ‘eieren’. What happened? Originally the plural of EI was EIER in Middle Dutch. In German the plural still is ‘Eier’. The Dutch ‘eieren’ is a double plural. There are several words in Dutch that have these childish sounding double plurals.

Here are the commonest ones:

Ei, eieren

Kind, kinderen (child)

Kalf, kalveren (calf)

Rund, runderen (cow)

Lam, lammeren (lamb)

Hoen, hoenderen (hen)

Lied, liederen (song)

Goed, goederen (ware)

Volk, volkeren (people)

Been, beenderen (bone)

Blad, bladeren (leaf)

Gemoed, gemoederen (feeling)

Rad, raderen (cog wheel)

(All ‘Het-woorden’)

By the way, this morning the Oxford English Dictionary sent me their Word of the Day ‘pysanka’. A ‘pysanka’ is an intricately decorated Easter egg of a type traditionally made in Poland and Ukraine, produced by drawing a pattern on an egg with wax and then applying dye (which cannot penetrate the areas covered by wax), then repeating this process with successive layers of wax and colours of dye, so that once all the wax is removed a multicoloured design is revealed.

So when you eat your pysankas or other painted or chocolate EIEREN today, think of the long history of the word and remember that you are participating in a ritual promoting the germ of New Life. Vrolijk Pasen!