A saying meaning that very important things sometimes require a sacrifice or result in casualties. Just as eggs must be broken to make an omelet, sometimes people must suffer for the greater good.

Care should be taken, however, not to equate the breaking of eggs as a guarantee of an omelet. As Prof. Charles P. Issawi said:

One cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs...
but it is amazing how many eggs one can break
without making a decent omelet.

The full sentence, with which most people are familiar, is "You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs."

This isn't actually a proverb, however. It's a justification used by Lenin regarding the killing of thousands of Russian citizens during his push to produce a better, more wonderful Communist state.

Just something to keep in mind next time you catch yourself throwing this cliche around.

In my experience this expression is almost always used ironically. When somebody proposes a dubious course of action, justifying it with the claim that the end justifies the means, an onlooker might dryly observe, "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." As mblase pointed out, the original use of the expression was to rationalize actions that were less than noble, to say the least. I think this comes through in the standard usage; the speaker is reminding the listener that this logic has been used by sketchy people throughout history to justify attrocities.

In fact, the few nonironic usages I can think of for this expression have generally come from Hollywood bad guys, and the intent there seems to be to make us hate them for their ruthlessness and ethical bankruptcy. Has anyone actually seen this expression used by a real person in an non-self conscious sense? I don't think I've ever seen it in live usage.

Actually, it was Maximilian Robespierre in 1790 justifying earlier executions - "On ne saurait faire une omelette sans casser des oeufs." He went on to headline the Reign of Terror.

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