Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Eyes like strange sins

with 11 comments

Cropped screenshot of Humphrey Bogart from the...

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You can be forgiven for thinking I have an egg and chicken fetish. I really don’t. Glad that’s cleared up.

Anyway, to crack on: Eggs.

OK, OK, I’m talking about eggs again. But only as a little side-alley to take us to the park. You’ll be glad when we get there.

It’s amazing how many egg-related references have permeated our language. Here are just a few:

Curate’s egg: This expression is based on an 1895 Punch cartoon. It originally meant something partly bad and therefore entirely spoilt. Now it is usually used to mean something that is partly good and partly bad.

Eggshell skull principle: legal maxim meaning, for example, that if someone with an exceptionally thin skull dies after you knock them to the ground, it’s no excuse that you didn’t know they had a thin skull; you still have to take full responsibility.

Nest egg: Money saved for the future. Its origin could be related to the second meaning of ‘nest egg’ which is a real or artificial egg left in a nest to induce a hen to lay more.

To egg on: Apparently a straightforward variant of ‘edge on’ (nothing to do with eggs).

Teaching my grandmother to suck eggs: Telling someone something they already know inside-out. You can read about the possible origins of this phrase at World Wide Words.

To end up with egg on your face: To be humiliated, or made to look foolish or ridiculous. This could possibly be derived from the practice of throwing raw eggs at, for example, unpopular politicians or stage performers.

Hard-boiled: A tough, gritty writing style associated with crime fiction.

So, relax, because now we’ve earned our walk in the park: all that was just a transparent excuse to quote some wonderful lines from Raymond Chandler, whose ability to cook up hard-boiled prose par excellence was second to none. Here goes:

The streets were dark with something more than night. (Trouble Is My Business)

 The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back. (The Long Goodbye)

I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars. (The Long Goodbye)

I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter nights. (The Big Sleep)

She opened her mouth like a firebucket and laughed. That terminated my interest in her. (The Long Goodbye)

Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead. (The Big Sleep)

A check girl in peach-bloom Chinese pajamas came over to take my hat and disapprove of my clothes. She had eyes like strange sins. (The High Window)

We sneered at each other across the desk for a moment. He sneered better than I did. (Farewell My Lovely)

When I left, Merle was wearing a bungalow apron and rolling pie-crust. She came to the door wiping her hands on the apron and kissed me on the mouth and began to cry and ran back into the house, leaving the doorway empty until her mother came into the space with a broad homely smile on her face to watch me drive away. I had a funny feeling as I saw the house disappear, as though I had written a poem and it was very good and I had lost it and would never remember it again. (The High Window)

Next up: Chickens and something tenuous to do with grammar. (Not really.)

More literary terms


11 Responses

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  1. Feel better after that?


    06/02/2011 at 12:56 pm

  2. I like this genre so much, and Chandler’s right at the top. This spare, direct style is probably easier to parody than to do well. Here are some others as a way of thanking you for posting it:

    “I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing.” -Dashiell Hammett/The Maltese Falcon

    “Love, when you get fear in it, it’s not love any more. It’s hate.”
    — James M. Cain/The Postman Always Rings Twice

    “Nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean wouldn’t cure.” -Ross MacDonald/The Moving Target

    Invisible Mikey

    07/02/2011 at 4:55 am

    • Thanks so much for those lovely examples from other authors. That’s an excellent point you make about the style being easier to parody than do well. And even easier to do badly. A rare skill. Thanks again, Mikey!


      07/02/2011 at 6:35 am

  3. Egg-cellent post, in both parts.
    I didn’t know that eggshell skull principle or the bit about edging on.
    As for Raymond Chandler, I have been meaning to read him for a long time – must go to that charity bookshop again and see what I can find…
    Keep up the good work.


    07/02/2011 at 9:39 am

    • Hi, Pat! Thanks for stopping by and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. The egging/edging thing was new to me, too. Radio 4 is currently dramatising a lot of Chandler’s works; I think that’s what made me think about him again. Hope you find some Chandler bargains! Thanks again.


      07/02/2011 at 9:53 am

  4. The Chandler quotes–esply from The High Window–are classic. I need to give him a second look.

    I expect you scrambled this phrasing on purpose: “ability to cook up hard-boiled prose par excellence was second to none.”

    Michael Farrell

    07/02/2011 at 5:10 pm

  5. The quotes from The High Window are my favourites too. Actually, I think I poached that phrasing from somewhere.


    07/02/2011 at 5:13 pm

  6. haaaaaaaaaaaaa.

    Michael Farrell

    07/02/2011 at 8:06 pm

  7. I am glad I found your blog. I truly love words and their origins. Just don’t ask me to spell them correctly. Your writing style too.
    Gosh I am paranoid about leaving you a comment, I am unworthy. :)humble smiles, Sara


    26/02/2011 at 8:50 pm

  8. Oh no! Please don’t worry about leaving a comment!

    You’re very welcome here, Sara.

    It’s only me who has to make sure I’ve spelt stuff correctly and put commas in the right place, seeing as I’m the one who rashly claims to know how to! I’m always going back over posts and correcting my own mistakes. And always learning, too.

    Thank you for your kind words, which I very much appreciate.


    27/02/2011 at 9:32 am

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