Singapore goes to the polls on Saturday, May 6, and the invectives are flying. The current stage in the battle resembles a fox hunt with the ruling People’s Action Party baying for the hide of the opposition Workers Party candidate James Gomez. Leaders from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong down are denouncing him for pulling a foxy trick on the elections department — which comes under the Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore doesn’t have an independent election commission — and demanding Mr Gomez shouldn’t run for election.
Mr Gomez, an occasional blogger who can be easily googled, did make himself fair game by his conduct when he filed his nomination papers as a candidate. Anyone interested in how he became an election issue can check the continuing saga on Singapore’s news channel, Channel NewsAsia’s website.
This post isn’t about politics but about language: a certain phrase dropped by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. Two nights ago he was at an election rally firing away at Mr Gomez. As he hurled his charges at the televised rally, he dropped a phrase that made me smile. Mr Gomez, he said, is a "bad egg".
It sounded so old-fashioned. Mr Lee isn’t getting any younger himself, he said it with a straight face. He went on to call Mr Gomez a "liar". That shivered me timbers all right. But "bad egg"? How serious can you be if you call someone today a "bad egg"? Not that I want to be called a "bad egg" myself — I would rather be a "good egg". Still, "bad egg" isn’t that bad an insult; it’s almost a euphemism. And it may be passing out of use. I checked my Concise Oxford and found it under "egg", listed at number 3: "informal, dated", the entry began, and then gave the meaning — "a person of a specified kind", followed by an example, "he’s a thoroughly bad egg". Ah, just like Mr Gomez, according to Mr Lee!
My Concise Oxford doesn’t mention how the phrase came about but it’s not hard to guess. One doesn’t have to be pelted with rotten eggs like the British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to imagine the stink and mess they create. A good egg, on the other hand, is yummy. Is that how we judge people — by how edible they are — as good eggs and bad eggs?
"Good eggs" don’t appear in my Oxford and "bad egg" gets only a passing mention.
And there’s no mention at all of one of my favourite phrases: "A twenty-minute egg".
PG Wodehouse coined that phrase to describe what might be called "a tough cookie" but is a lot more formidable and hard to crack.
Not having any of the master’s works near my desktop, I did a Google search and came across this quotation: "the Duke of Dunstable… was a twenty-minute egg in human form …" Hard-boiled doesn’t even begin to describe the tough old bird who appears in Emsworth novels — and if I am mixing my metaphors, too bad, a "twenty-minute egg" won’t be a "twenty-minute egg" if he/she/it could be called by any other name.