There are two famous riddles about chickens. One investigates the reasoning behind the chicken’s desire to cross the road (“to get to the other side”), while the other poses the ontological quandary: “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

We shan’t attempt to answer the question in a philosophical or biologicalmanner, but we can answer it lexicographically. And, looking in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), we can reveal that the answer is… not conclusive.


Interesting, the earliest recorded use of chicken in English refers to the ‘young of the domestic fowl’ in a simile. The word dates to an Old English interlinear gloss of the Lindisfarne Gospels: ‘Suæ henne somnigas cicceno hire.’ This is taken from Matthew 23:37, where Jesus says of Jerusalem that He has ‘longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings’ (in the New International Version).

In this quotation, chicken is used to describe the young of the fowl, rather than the adult (chicken as a domestic fowl of any age is first found, according to current OED research, as late as the 19th century) – but the same verse is also one of the earliest recorded examples of hen (the adult female of the common fowl).
在该引用中chicken被用来形容未长大的家禽而不是长大了的家禽(据现在通用的牛津英语词典记载直到19世纪chicken才用来指各个生理阶段的家禽)但同样在这一诗文中也第一次出现了hen 一词(指同类成年雌性家禽)。


Things get a bit more complex when we turn our attention to egg. One of the oldest examples of the word in English is found in an Old English excerpt that translates as ‘But if it be a fast-day, they are to be given a wey of cheese, and of fish, butter, and eggs, as much as they can get’. In this instance, listed alongside cheese, fish, and butter, it is clear that the egg is (as the OED definition phrases it) ‘an egg of a domestic fowl as an article of food’.
egg一词的词义可能更为复杂。英语中有关egg一词的最早记录出现在一个古老的英语摘录中,摘录中写道“但如果是斋戒日他们就能吃到自己想吃的一切,一韦(古时计量单位)奶酪、鱼肉和鸡蛋。该句中egg 与奶酪、鱼和黄油放在一起显然说明了egg(正如牛津英语词典里解释的那样)是指用来作为事物的家禽的蛋。

All well and good. But we are more interested (for the purposes of this riddle) in egg meaning ‘the (more or less) spheroidal body produced by the female of birds and other animal species, and containing the germ of a new individual, enclosed within a shell or firm membrane’. Well, this is found in another Old English document: ‘On æge bið gioleca on middan’ (‘In an egg there is a yolk in the middle’). Although the egg-as-offspring must predate the egg-as-culinary-fare, we do not know which was written about first.
这样的解释当然令人满意,但我们还是对egg 一词的另一个解释(让我们产生疑惑的原因)更感兴趣,即由雌性鸟类或其他种类产下的(类似)球状体,包括任何保护在坚固的壳或膜里的新生动植物的胚层。在一个古老的英文文献中我们还发现了这样的记载,即鸡蛋的中央是蛋黄。虽然与有关蛋是一种烹饪食材的记载相比人们最先找到了有关蛋是禽类后代的文献资料,但我们并不能确定哪种定义是最先问世的。

A draw

So, when somebody asks you “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”, you can question what they mean by chicken and what they mean by egg, but you can’t offer a conclusive lexicographical answer; both date from the Old English period, so we’ll call it a draw. It is also worth noting that neither chicken nor egg have yet been revised in the ongoing creation of the third edition of the OED. It’s possible that this question will be resolved when the entries are updated, but for now we can’t be certain.
所以当有人问你是蛋生鸡还是鸡生蛋的时候,你就问他鸡和蛋指的是什么但不要给出这两个词的绝对定义,因为这两个词都起源于古英语时期所以我们可以把它们称为模糊词。因此在正在编撰的第三版的牛津英语词典中也没有必要对chicken 和egg的含义进行修订。也许等到词典词目得到更新后这一问题会得到解决吧,但至少现在我们还不能确定。