This May Be the Oldest Food Trivia Question of All Time

This May Be the Oldest Food Trivia Question of All Time

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Tracy Saelinger
Apr 21, 2017
Chicken egg illustration
(Image credit: LovArt/Shutterstock)

Oh, the chicken-and-egg dilemma: Start thinking about it too much, and it's mind-bendingly philosophical.

It's little surprise, then, that the "chicken or the egg" question's roots actually stretch as far back as Aristotle.

As an idiom, though, we know "chicken or the egg?" was in regular use by the mid-1800s, says Jane Solomon, lexicographer at Dictionary.com, who dug through loads of history to help answer this question for us.

It's ancient history!

First, back to those Greek philosophers. Humans have wondered about the origins of the universe forever, of course, and at least two famous thinkers used the eloquent egg in their pondering about how life on earth began (as smart as they were, they didn't know about evolution back then).

"For there could not have been a first egg to give a beginning to birds, or there should have been a first bird which gave a beginning to eggs; for a bird comes from an egg," wrote Aristotle (384–322 BC), according to an 1825 English translation of Lives of the Ancient Philosophers by François Fénelon.

Plutarch (46–120 AD) was more to the point, basically coining the phrase: "Which was first, the bird or the egg?" in Plutarch's Essays and Miscellanies. One of his "relations" even took the stand that "…if we suppose that small things must be the principles of great, it is likely that the egg was before the bird."

Now, it's common language!

The philosophers' works endured, and the question stayed with us through the ages. By the 19th century, it appeared in books, poetry, and newspapers.

In 1868, Sir Samuel Ferguson mentioned the question in a book called Father Tom and the Pope. Children's author Mary Mapes Dodge wrote in 1875:

BUMBLE, bramble, which came first, sir
Eggs or chickens? Who can tell?
I'll never believe that the first egg burst, sir,
Before its mother was out of her shell.

An 1895 Los Angeles Times article included a weird chicken-or-the-egg joke involving a landlady and a tenant. And there are examples of this idiom in other languages, too. "What sets it apart from most idioms is its cross-language appeal," Solomon says. "Often idioms are language-specific, but this seems to be universal." So other also cultures deal with this great mystery! Yay?!

It still boggles minds!

In recent years, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking weighed in on the debate: He thinks the egg came first. And he has an IQ of more than 160, so we'll just trust him on this.

It's all more than a little to think about the next time you're making a breakfast scramble … or roasting chicken.

Which came first? Weigh in below!

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