In another of those random moments of curiosity, it occurred to me to wonder where the expression “nest egg” came from. As you can see from the various lexicographical sources collected at TheFreeDictionary, it literally means “An artificial or natural egg placed in a nest to induce a bird to continue to lay eggs in that place.” The OED has the first citation from 1579 (J. Stubbs Discouerie Gaping Gulf sig. B5, “The church of Christ rased, the very nest egge broken, as farr as mens mischeeuous reasonable wit cold reach”) and gives the first figurative sense as “A sum of money laid or set by as a reserve” (1686 Let. 4 May in B. Rand Locke & Clarke 164 “The rest, I perceive, he is not troubled should remain as a nest egg till a farther occasion”; 1990 Internat. Business Week 2 Apr. 31/3 “Increasing numbers of seniors enjoying the fruits of private pensions, as well as nest eggs built up during the high-growth years”), with the sense “A sum of money serving as a nucleus for the acquisition of more” only from 1801 (R. B. Sheridan Let. Jan. II. 147 “Burgess has only the nest egg of my Quaker £100”)—which is odd, since it would seem to be the obvious extension of the literal sense.

My ancient Oxford French Dictionary gives the literal nichet for “nest egg”; my more recent Collins-Robert gives only the figurative pécule. The Russian word подкладень (podkladen’, stress on the first syllable) seems to have been forgotten since Dahl’s day, but then I expect the practice of putting such fake eggs in nests has long fallen into desuetude as well.


  1. marie-lucie says

    I don’t think I have ever heard of un nichet (cf the verb nicher ‘to nest’ = make one’s nest), either literally or figuratively. My guess would be that it refers literally to a real or fake (wooden) egg left in a nest, especially a hen’s nest. Such eggs are probably no longer used because egg-laying is now “encouraged” and regulated through the food given to the hens.
    I never thought of it, but when I was a child many women spent time darning socks, and used a wooden egg slipped into the sock as a guide to the rounded shape of the sock’s heel and toe to be darned. Those wooden eggs must have been “nest eggs” originally! since a ball of the proper size could also have been used for the purpose.
    Un pécule is a sum of money saved up or otherwise accumulated, for instance in anticipation of travel. The word does seem somewhat old-fashioned: in an 18C or 19C novel a young man from a rural area setting forth hopefully toward the capital city might carry with him his pécule, money either saved by himself or given to him by his parents, inherited from a relative, etc. This money (never a large amount) is meant to tide him over until he finds another source of funds, such as a job. In current usage it mostly applies to savings, including retirement savings, on a modest scale.

  2. In Roman law, a peculium was the money accumulated by a son under his father’s power, a wife under her husband’s, or a slave under his master’s, and which although technically none of these had any rights to property was for some purposes treated as the son’s, wife’s or slave’s. In particular, the peculium could be seized for the payment of debts incurred by the person under power to a third party, and it was fraud for the holder of the power to withdraw the peculium to himself in such circumstances, which otherwise he could do at any time. If and when the person under power became an independent legal person, the peculium normally became their absolute property.

  3. marie-lucie says

    JC, thank you for the precisions. I am not sure how far French law corresponded to Roman law on this topic. I must say it never occurred to me that the pécule could have been more a loan than a gift or a person’s actual earnings. Of course, during the period I mentioned, French law changed drastically on some points.

  4. This part of Roman law was long obsolete when French law came along: the term has to be an analogy rather than an actual inherited term (in the sense of law, not linguistics). A modern American version might be the savings accounts that parents often open for their children; in early years, the parents make the deposits, but later on the kids are expected to put some part of their earnings in as well.

  5. “the savings accounts that parents often open for their children; in early years, the parents make the deposits, but later on the kids are expected to put some part of their earnings in as well”: I wonder whether that custom survives in Britain or whether the high inflation years in the seventies put a stop to it.
    In my case my boyish account was in a Savings Bank, but those worthy institutions no longer exist, bar one.

  6. >Languagehat
    I don’t understand why you expect it.

  7. Catherine Darley says

    “many women spent time darning socks, and used a wooden egg slipped into the sock as a guide to the rounded shape of the sock’s heel and toe to be darned.”
    So how strange it is that in French the expression “bas de laine” (woolen sock or stocking)is exactly the right one for the figurative sense of “nest egg”, i.e. a sum of money collected coin after coin and kept in a sock to be used later, as a dowry for example.
    Never heard of a nichet but it seems that it doesn’t have a figurative sense — so it’s just a fake egg in wood or ceramic (and you don’t use either the egg or the word except if you have hens).

  8. I believe that I have seen a darning egg in the flesh without knowing what it was. Maybe I thought it was some form of moth repellent, without checking to see if it smelled like cedar.

  9. I don’t understand why you expect it.
    If you mean why I suspect the practice of putting such fake eggs in nests has gone out of use, it’s just because it seems incompatible with modern industrial methods of poultry management. I have not investigated it, however.

  10. Trond Engen says

    Never heard of darning eggs in Norway. My grandmother had a stoppesopp, a darning mushroom.

  11. >Languagehat
    Eggs made by plastic are also used to do that canaries incubate all eggs the same time so that their chicks are born at the same time.

  12. Trond Engen says

    Speaking of nests: Tjeld-TV.

  13. Dearieme, the mutual savings bank appeared in the U.S. within six years after its development in Scotland. Though many were converted to stock companies in the 1970s, we still have about 600 left, says Wikipedia. In addition, we have more than 8000 credit unions (about as many as banks), which are a species of cooperative bank that must restrict their memberships to groups with a pre-existing bond of association (employees of a company, residents of a neighborhood, members of a church, etc.), and which are controlled on a one-member-one-vote basis rather than in proportion to the amount of money on deposit.

  14. marie-lucie says

    Trond: My grandmother had a stoppesopp, a darning mushroom
    Thank you for the link and pictures! The darning mushroom is an improvement over the egg, for use with both socks (the cap) and gloves (the stem, for the fingers), in order to restore the worn parts. The wooden egg or mushroom, being solid, helps maintain the shape of the sock, etc and the proper tension of the replacement thread or yarn while the repair is being done.

  15. marie-lucie says

    Darning eggs still sold in Spain: I am sure that’s true in places where much darning is still being done. But the wooden eggs used for darning probably started as the same fake eggs which were no longer needed after the hens were through with the brooding season. Nowadays modern methods include nutritional supplements in the hens’ feed in order to induce continued egg production.
    Catherine, le bas de laine: excellent observation!

  16. Speaking of nests: Tjeld-TV.
    Everything about these birds is wonderful. Thank you for the link.
    But why do their Scandinavian names seem to imply they have something to do with tents?
    (Two unconvincing explanations: a suggestion (under ‘chalder’ in The Dictionary of the Scots Language) that it’s because they have long legs like tent poles – did Old Norse tents have red poles? – and a legend that oystercatchers once hid Jesus from enemies by covering him with seaweed. Lke an awning perhaps, or a camouflage net.)

  17. Trond Engen says

    I like them too. They’re my birds for two reasons. First, I almost grew up among them, spending my boyhood summers i fjæra* on the coast of Northern Norway. Second, I’ve always been told that my father wanted to name me Kjell since my feet were so red.
    I can’t check the etymology now. If it’s opaque and restricted to North Germanic it might perhaps even be a (Pre-)Sami word.
    *) I ²fjæra “in the ebb”, i.e. on the sandy or muddy seabottom laid bare by the ebb. I ¹fjæra means “in the feathers”. That would have been too close.

  18. In Germany we have darning mushrooms, too, Stopfpilze and strangely enough one of the expressions that we use for money saved for a rainy day is Sparstrumpf, lit. savings stocking probably because that’s a good place to hide your cash!

  19. marie-lucie says

    Just like the French bas de laine ‘woollen stocking’ referred to above. A woman could hide her pocket money and any extra coins in a woollen stocking where she kept her darning egg or mushroom, in the box or bag holding her needlework supplies and work in progress (including knitting and darning), where her husband was unlikely to go rummaging among “women’s stuff”.

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    The French wife’s bas de laine seems intermediate between the old-time American wife’s pin money and her butter and egg money.

  21. Since the Majolica and mayonnaise thread is closed and this one is almost food related, i wanted to add that although mayo on fries is positively un-american, and like france they’re usually served alongside other food, at least around here all the trendy restaurants sell fries with fancy flavored aioli or truffle mayonnaise as an appetizer or beer food. Curry mayonnaise is good, but the truffle mayonnaise was a little off-putting, and straight mayo is still too strange for me. (voila. eggs *and* mushrooms. totally a valid tangent.)

  22. I should point out, as I do every once in a while, that there is no requirement to keep threads on topic and people are positively encouraged to post comments in open threads when I’ve reluctantly had to close the thread they were intended for.

  23. marie-lucie says

    Thank you for all those darning mushrooms, Juha! I see that I could even order one online from the Finnish 2 site for just a few euros!

  24. marie-lucie says

    s/o: at least around here all the trendy restaurants …
    Where is “around here”?

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