Walking on eggshells
Example in use: “He’s rather sensitive about making mistakes so when I found a major error in his calculations, I had to walk on eggshells to point it out without upsetting him.”
Meaning: to be careful around a sensitive topic or to make an effort not to make a difficult person angry or offended
Possible German equivalent: einen Eiertanz aufführen
Possible origin: This idiom might come from the same background as expressions such as “walking on thin ice” or even broken glass which have the same or similar meaning – that of needing to be careful around a particular topic or person. There is also some agreement that it might come from an earlier saying, “walking on eggs”. Obviously, it might be difficult but not unfeasible to walk on eggshells but literally walking on eggs would be practically impossible.
The form “walking on eggs” appears in the 1700s and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) already gave the definition as “to walk warily, as on delicate ground” at that time. The OED lists two c.1734 references to the whole-egg version such as, “This gave him occasion … to find if any slip had been made (for he all along trod upon eggs).” At the same time, politicians who were particularly cautious in their positions on certain issues were said to be able to walk on eggs without breaking them – not entirely complimentary but maybe not as strong a criticism as we might hear today.
However, the eggshell version doesn’t appear until the 1800s and the earliest printed use seems to be in the 1860 novel, The Woman In White, with this quotation. “With that woman for my enemy … I walk, in your English phrase, upon egg-shells!”
It is unclear why the phrase morphed from eggs to eggshells and it would appear that almost no one uses the older form of the idiom today.
Welcome again to our weekly series that hopes to go behind the scenes of some rather typical English expressions.