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Fricassee of Words – Eggs in One Basket

dont put all your eggs in one basket - food expression

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: Don’t make your goal dependent on a single process or resource; don’t concentrate all efforts on a single aspect of your task; don’t direct all resources to a single plan; don’t put all your money in a single investment.

With Easter just weeks away, the expression “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” seems like a suitable topic for this week’s musings. For some odd reason the nursery rhyme, “Jack and Jill” comes to mind. “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after…” Fortunately, the kids were not hurt in the end, and all they did was spill water, but replace that with eggs and you’ve got an entirely different outcome and rhyme.

Come to think of it, why would one not want to fetch water in separate pails, as a spilled one is lost forever? Water, it turns out, has much more to do with the eggs in a basket expression than one might imagine. The eggs’ reference to a risky venture and the prospect of loss is a variation on an ancient practice having to do with sea faring merchants. But we must first bring our attention to a 17th century proverb that stated, “Venture not all in one bottom.”

The bottom in question has little to do with eggs or baskets. Instead, it is a nautical term, referring to the cargo hold of Babylonian merchant ships around 4000 BC. At that time, it was common practice for merchant ship owners to secure loans from wealthy parties to pay for repairs or equipment. This arrangement was later known as a “Bottomry contract.” The vessel itself was pledged as collateral. You can imagine where this is going. A sunk ship meant complete loss for the lender.

Some attribute the egg and basket reference to a 1710 text titled “Moral essays on some of the most curious and significant English, Scotch and foreign proverbs” by British landscape artist and essayist Samuel Palmer. His version read, “Don’t venture all your eggs in one basket.” The time and source of the transition from bottomry to basketry, so to speak, is not clear. But we can easily imagine how the down to earth version might come to mind naturally among city merchants, perhaps, as the egg basket clearly lends itself to that environment.

Another reference occurs a short time later in Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605 and 1615) where it is written, “It is the part of a wise man to keep himself today for tomorrow, and not venture all his eggs in one basket.” It is interesting to note how this twist on the phrase takes into consideration the notion of self-preservation and restraint in addition to focusing on the fear of loss. Mark Twain himself makes good use of the phrase in “Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) where he states, “Put all your eggs in the one basket and …watch that basket.”

While the prospect of losing an entire investment when a ship vanishes to unreachable depths is a very real possibility, the egg basket warning is not quite as accurate. Not all eggs will break if the basket is dropped. This, according to some, suggests another meaning, inspired by a real and present threat in those times when folks acquired eggs from open air markets. Thieves were the risk then, as it was easy enough to nab a basket full of goods straight out of one’s grasp.

We hope your Easter chocolate eggs basket overflows. The only risk there is temptation, and perhaps reluctance to share. Please, do share.

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