The Curate’s Egg: Parts of It Are Excellent

Punch Magazine? Judy Magazine? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A famous one-panel comic shows a lowly curate who is visiting the house of a powerful bishop for breakfast. The bishop notices that the curate has unfortunately been served a spoiled egg, and the curate’s response is overly polite and deferential. Here are two versions:

  • My lord, really, some parts of it are very good.
  • My lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent.

A spoiled egg is typically thrown away and not eaten. It is viewed as entirely bad. Nevertheless, the meaning of the term “curate’s egg” has shifted over time. It is used figuratively to refer to something which has a mixture of positive and negative attributes. It is both good and bad. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This joke is usually traced to a cartoon published in the humor magazine “Punch” on November 9, 1895, and that cartoon is shown further below; however, the origin can actually be traced to an earlier time.

A precursor anecdote without a cartoon illustration appeared in “The Academy” journal in 1875. The creator of the story was unidentified, and the punchline was a bit different. Also, it did not include the claim that parts of the egg were good. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Without pledging our credence, we could afford a grin to the story of the “young Levite” who at a bishop’s breakfast-table, was so ‘umble as to decline the replacement of a bad egg by a good one with a “No thank you, my Lord, it’s good enough for me;” . . .

On May 22, 1895 “Judy: The London Serio-Comic Journal” published a cartoon with a bishop and curate. This is the first close match located by QI: 2

SCENE—BISHOP’S BREAKFAST TABLE.
Bishop (to timid Curate on a visit). DEAR ME, I’M AFRAID YOUR EGG’S NOT GOOD!
Timid Curate. OH, YES, MY LORD, REALLY-ER-SOME PARTS OF IT ARE VERY GOOD.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Magazines are usually available to readers before their official cover dates. Thus, on May 21, 1895 the “Huddersfield Chronicle” of Yorkshire, England retold the joke without an illustration while acknowledged “Judy”. 3

Scene: Bishop’s breakfast table.— Bishop (to timid curate on a visit): Dear me, I’m afraid your egg’s not good. Timid Curate: Oh, yes, my lord, really—er—some parts of it are very good.

In June 1895 the gag jumped across the Atlantic and appeared in “The Chicago Tribune” of Illinois, 4 the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” of Missouri, 5 and “The Los Angeles Times” of California. 6 “Judy” was acknowledged, but the one-panel comic was omitted.

On November 9, 1895 “Punch, Or the London Charivari” published a version of the jest in cartoon form: 7

TRUE HUMILITY.
Right Reverend Host. “I’M AFRAID YOU’VE GOT A BAD EGG, MR. JONES!”
The Curate. “OH NO, MY LORD, I ASSURE YOU! PARTS OF IT ARE EXCELLENT!”

On November 20, 1895 an unhappy editor at “Judy” complained about the plagiarism performed by “Punch” and displayed the text of the two versions of the gag side by side: 8

And I’ve not done with Punch yet. In their issue of November 9th, 1895, they published an illustration by Du Maurier of a joke that was illustrated by Mr. Wilkinson , and published in JUDY, on May 22nd, 1895. I can’t give you the pictures here. I could give you JUDY’S, but not Punch’s; but anyone can see the coincidence for themselves by getting Punch and JUDY of these dates. Here are the “undercuts” :—

JUDY. (May 22nd, 1895)
BISHOP (to timid curate on a visit): “Dear me, I’m afraid your egg’s not good?
TIMID CURATE: “Oh, yes, my lord, really-er—some parts of it are very good!”

PUNCH. (November 9th, 1895)
RIGHT REVEREND HOST: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr. Jones!”
THE CURATE: “Oh, no, my lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!”

In conclusion, the humor of the “curate’s egg” began with an anonymous anecdote circulating by 1875. The magazine “Judy” deserves credit for publishing a cartoon on May 22, 1895 with a punchline containing the distinctive phrase “some parts of it are very good”. The magazine “Punch” published very similar cartoon joke on November 9, 1895 with the punchline phrase “parts of it are excellent”. QI believes that “Judy” should be given priority credit.

Image Notes: Picture of breakfast table showing an egg in an egg cup from Peggychoucair at Pixabay. Image has been resized and cropped.

(Thanks to discussants Laurence Horn, Bill Mullins, John Baker, and Mark Mandel who introduced QI to this topic and provided helpful citations and insights. Many thanks to Stephen Goranson for accessing the May 22, 1895 cartoon in “Judy” and identifying the November 20, 1895 citation. Thanks also to Jeffrey Graf for checking a citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1875 July 26, The Academy, Book Review of: “Our Bishops and Deans” by the Rev. F. Arnold (Late of Christ Church Oxford), Start Page 651, Quote Page 652, Column 2, Robert Scott Walker, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1895 May 22, Judy: The London Serio-Comic Journal, Scene-Bishop’s Breakfast Table (Single-panel comic showing a Bishop and Curate at a breakfast table), Quote Page 245, London, England. (Gale 19th Century UK Periodicals)
  3. 1895 May 21, Huddersfield Chronicle, Cuttings from “Judy”, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  4. 1895 June 11, The Chicago Tribune, A Compromise, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  5. 1895 June 15, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Current Humor, Quote Page 4, Column 4, St. Louis, Missouri. (ProQuest)
  6. 1895 June 20, The Los Angeles Times, Smiles, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  7. 1895 November 9, Punch, Or the London Charivari, True Humility (Single-panel comic showing a Right Reverend and Curate at a breakfast table), Quote Page 222, London, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1895 November 20, Judy: The London Serio-Comic Journal, Masks and Faces: A Coincidence, Start Page 248, Quote Page 249. Column 1 London, England. (Gale 19th Century UK Periodicals)