Proverb: omlets are not made without breaking eggs (antedating 1796 May)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Fri Feb 4 18:45:49 UTC 2011

Many thanks to Jesse Sheidlower for the kind comment, and thanks to
Charlie and others on this thread.

The 1796 article in Walker's Hibernian magazine is about the capture
of the Frenchman François de Charette who was involved in the Revolt
in the Vendée. Charette is the speaker who is using the proverb. I
believe that the magazine account is translating his remark from
French to English.

Another translation of the words uttered by Charette is given in the
"Monthly Magazine or British Register" a month earlier in April 1796:

Cite: 1796 April, Monthly Magazine or British Register, Deaths Abroad,
Page 248, Printed for R. Phillips. (Google Books full view)

They said to him, you have made us lose a great many men. "Ah! One
cannot make pancakes without breaking eggs."

The use of "pancakes" instead of "omlets" is consistent with an  early
definition given in the OED for omelette:

1611 R. Cotgrave Dict. French & Eng. Tongues,   Omelette [v.r.
Haumelotte, Homelette], an Omelet, or Pancake of egges.

There are other later instances of the proverb in English that use the
term pancakes.

In The Quote Verifier Ralph Keyes presents French, Spanish and Italian
versions of the proverb. It is sometimes attributed to Robespierre (as
you note) and Napoleon.

(While preparing this comment I see others have covered similar material)

On Fri, Feb 4, 2011 at 12:53 PM, Charles C Doyle <cdoyle at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Charles C Doyle <cdoyle at UGA.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: Proverb: omlets are not made without breaking eggs
>              (antedating 1796 May)
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> The _Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs_ (3rd ed., 1970; 594) gives, from 1815, "On ne peut pas faire des omelettes sans casser les oeufs."  That's early enough to make one wonder whether a French proverb might lie behind the Englsih proverb.
> Burton Stevenson's _Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Familiar Phrases_ (1948; 1230) cites "Robespierre, _Epigram_. (c. 1790)"--with no other information.
> --Charlie
> ________________________________________
> From: American Dialect Society [ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] on behalf of Garson O'Toole [adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM]
> Sent: Friday, February 04, 2011 11:57 AM
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.
> Oxford Reference online lists this proverb in three texts: "A
> Dictionary of Phrase and Fable", "Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs" and
> "Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: Proverbs."
> The OED (April 2009) also lists this saying as a phrase under the
> headword omelette. The Yale Book of Quotations has it, and Fred
> discussed it on the Quotes Uncovered blog on Thursday. The earliest
> cite given in these references is for a variant in 1859. Eric M. Jones
> posted an 1804 cite as a blog comment yesterday. The following cite
> pushes back to an earlier century:
> Cite: 1796 May, Walker's Hibernian magazine, Some Particulars
> Respecting the Capture of Charette, Page 411, Printed by R. Gibson.
> (Google Books full view)
> It was remarked to him that he had caused the death if a great many
> persons. Yes, he replied, omlets are not made without breaking eggs.
> The "omlets" spelling is tricky, but the OCR exacerbates the search
> problem because the word is recognized as "toilets". Also, the phrase
> is broken because the two column structure is incorrectly interpreted
> and the columns are combined.
> Garson
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