By Jez

2011-06-25 20:51:11 8 Comments

This is such a strange idiom, all I could find with a Google search was the meaning of it, but not where it came from. When you're telling somebody something they already know well, it's sometimes said that you're "teaching grandma to suck eggs". Where did this phrase come from, and what is 'suck eggs' referring to?


@Marthaª 2011-06-26 04:21:59

Phrase finder quotes a 1542 "to teach our dame to spyne" as a possible origin. The spinning version makes perfect sense: even as late as the 1500s, all women learned how to spin, and many of them spent most of their waking hours with a spindle in their hands.

At some point, however, the logical metaphor lost favor, and the phrase mutated: instead of teaching your grandma something she knows better than you because she's been doing it since she was three years old, the phrase became about things that anyone with a modicum of intelligence can figure out how to do, if only they could come up with a reason to do them in the first place.

I think it is incorrect to try to assign a literal meaning to the "suck eggs" part, like that thread on Wordwizard tries to do. The simile is meant to be absurd. In fact, I see this as a relative of phrases such as "ass over teakettle" or "it's not rocket surgery": we know what they mean because we know the original phrases they refer to, not because they make any sense.

@Callithumpian 2011-06-26 10:08:46

You may be right about the egg sucking. The more I thought about it the more I wondered why anyone would suck in raw egg when the same result could be achieved by blowing it out. And was there really such a demand for empty eggshells? All the same, there are some very old references to egg sucking. I'm going to pursue it a little further.

@Marthaª 2011-06-26 18:29:20

Egg sucking is a way to eat eggs. But it's a method you'd only use if you had no other means at your disposal, i.e. not even a bowl to crack them into, nevermind a method of cooking. I think this is at the root of the various derisive uses of the phrase (the other example being "go suck eggs").

@Peter Rowell 2011-12-30 21:41:37

@Callithumpian: Nearly all finely crafted Easter Eggs -- which may take many hours to create -- are emptied of their contents so that they don't rot/putrefy.

@Marthaª 2011-12-30 21:45:14

@PeterRowell, except you empty Pysanky by blowing out the contents, not by sucking it out. (You also do this after you've finished dyeing the egg; otherwise, it just floats on top of the dye.)

@Peter Rowell 2011-12-30 22:00:08

@Marthaª: Gaack! I am but a lowly programmer who has obviously (obliviously?) wandered into a nest of 32nd degree pedants. :-) I was responding to the question in Callithumpian's first comment to this answer and assumed (always a dangerous thing to do) that the context of both sucking and blowing mentioned therein would be understood. I guess I suck at assuming! :-)

@Mari-Lou A 2017-03-25 00:41:19

A reminder to users on the review queue, please read the entire post before approving edits. Martha says quite clearly The simile is meant to be absurd. and provides examples, the "it's not rocket surgery" is meant to be such an example. She knows it's wrong, we know it's wrong, (because we know the original phrases they refer to) and that's why it should be left like that.

@Hugo 2012-06-26 12:36:26

The earliest dictionary definition I found is from Dictionarium Britannicum: Or, A More Compleat Universal Etymological English Dictionary Than Extant (1736) by Nathan Bailey, George Gordon, Philip Miller, Thomas Lediard:

Dictionarium Britannicum

Teach your Grannum (Grandame) to suck Eggs (A Reproof to those, who think they have more Knowledge than the whole World, and will be ever and anon teaching those who have had more Experience than themselves.

The Scots say : Learn your Goodam to make Milk-Kail (Milk-Pottage) or, Teach your Father to get Bairns (Children) Lat. Sus Minervam [pig teaching Minerva, the goddess of wisdom], Fr. Les Oisons mènent les Oyes paître (i.e.) the Goslings lead the Geese to the Pasture. We say likewise, teach your Granny to grope her Goose. The It. I paperi voglien menar a bene l' oche.

Apparently some people, especially older village women, had the secret to tell by touch whether a goose or duck was likely to lay eggs, and teach your grandame to grope her ducks is even older, from 1611 (more on 16th century poultry groping here). Similarly, to teach her to sup sour milk is from 1670 and an Irish version was to milk eggs.

@Ali Altun 2011-09-01 09:15:09

Teaching grandmother to suck eggs is an English-language saying, meaning that a person is giving advice to someone else about a subject that they already know about (and probably more than the first person).

The origins of the phrase are not clear. The OED and others[2] suggests that it comes from a translation in 1707, by J. Stevens of Quevedo (Spanish Playwright)

Its use was recorded in Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, published in 1749:

“I remember my old schoolmaster, who was a prodigious great scholar, used often to say, Polly matete cry town is my daskalon. The English of which, he told us, was, That a child > may sometimes teach his grandmother to suck eggs”

References :

@Hackworth 2011-09-01 09:13:34

"Teaching grandmother to suck eggs is an English-language saying, meaning that a person is giving advice to someone else about a subject that they already know about (and probably more than the first person)"

"The origins of the phrase are not clear. The OED and others suggests that it comes from a translation in 1707, by J. Stevens of Quevedo (Spanish Playwright):

'You would have me teach my Grandame to suck Eggs'"

@Callithumpian 2011-06-25 22:20:10

The Phrase Finder has "Don't try to teach your Grandma to suck eggs" as older than you might think, but without any explanation of the egg sucking part.


Don't offer advice to someone who has more experience than oneself.


These days this proverbial saying has little impact as few people have any direct experience of sucking eggs - grandmothers included. It is quite an old phrase and is included in John Stevens' translation of Quevedo's Comical Works, 1707:

"You would have me teach my Grandame to suck Eggs."

A little more on the egg-sucking part from Wordwizard:

Perhaps its meaning is getting lost in time as few people nowadays literally suck eggs. Many years ago people would suck out the egg contents by piercing the egg at both ends and then sucking on one of the ends. You could reverse the procedure and blow out the contents also. It was such a commonplace procedure then that to "teach your grandmother to suck eggs" was like a child trying to teach as new something the grandmother well knew how to do. The saying still survives despite the fine art dying out in our "civilized" and salmonella fearing culture.

@1006a 2017-03-24 18:33:50

"suck out the egg contents by piercing the egg at both ends and then sucking on one of the ends." I wonder if this is part of why this particular procedure made it into the idiom. It's not always intuitive that an air in-flow hole is helpful in extracting contents from a sealed container (e.g. when pouring something out of a can). I can sort of picture the conversation: "Granny, don't forget you need to poke a hole at both ends of the egg." "I know that! Think I don't know that? I've been sucking eggs for sixty years, think I don't know you need two holes? Young whippersnapper..."

@Robusto 2011-06-25 21:18:11

Eric Partridge, in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, gives this reading:

grandmother ( or granny) how to (or to) suck eggs, teach one's.
To give advice to one's senior; esp. to instruct an expert in his own expertise: from ca. 1600. Cotgrave, Swift, Fielding. Occ. from ca. 1790, abbr. to teach one's grandmother or granny.

He goes on to say suck eggs may be a mutation from to spin (as in with a distaff), etc., and other parallels are to grope ducks, or to sup sour milk. Presumably the sour milk and egg-sucking give the phrase a derisive, negative quality.

@Jez 2011-06-25 21:22:14

Bizarre. How on earth does 'spin' turn in to 'suck eggs'?

@Marthaª 2011-06-26 02:53:57

You don't actually spin with a distaff. A distaff is just a stick for holding your wool or flax. You spin with a spindle, either handheld or attached to a spinning wheel.

@Robusto 2011-06-26 10:53:41

@Martha: Is a distaff not involved?

@Marthaª 2011-06-26 18:24:09

depends on the kind of spinning you're doing. I have a friend who does a lot of spinning, but it's almost all wool, and she doesn't so much as own a distaff. My antique-reproduction flax wheel, on the other hand, has a built-in distaff. Cotton spinners will sometimes use a distaff, sometimes not, depending on how their cotton was prepared. (Cotton is pretty hard to spin by hand, though. Most people who spin for recreation don't bother with cotton.)

@david macCary richter 2020-03-16 02:03:47

Robusto's suppositions here are quite wrong, missing the connotations and the history alike. No disrespect, but 2 informative answers have been upvoted above.

@Robusto 2020-03-16 02:09:00

@david: They aren't my suppositions, they're Eric Partridge's.

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