Wednesday, 8 October 2008

De Factoid the Ninth: Shut your PIE-hole...

In this De Factoid one addresses a subject close to every northern-Englishman’s heart – slicing across the social, cultural and linguistic history of the grandest and humblest of deep dishes: pie.

Pie has been with us for a long time. Archeologists (diggers of old things) discovered etchings of a pie-like dish on the walls of the tomb of King Ramesses II (who we know to have rather enjoyed his pepper from De Factoid the Eighth) which was likely to have consisted of honey, nuts and fruit wrapped in a primitive dough/pastry. Pastry, as a word, is French (from Old French, pastaierie) and is linked through late-Latin, pastāta (from where we get the name of the Italian mainstay: pasta) to the word paste – another substance originally made using flour and water – and also linked to the word pasty: the popular meat-pie-like dish popular in Cornwall, England. Pasty entered the English language as the Middle-English word paste(e) through Old French, pastée – a corruption of the Latin paste-word. The ‘paste’ element of the pasty is in the minced meat and vegetable filling, rather than the flour and water of the surrounding pastry. Back in France the word continued to evolve and from Old French pastée, Modern French was granted the similarly minced word, pâté.

The equivalent ‘native’ English word for the Old French, pastrydough – came from Old English dāg and is, from the point of view of language(s), even further reaching. The word is linked to the process of kneading (another Old English word, cnedan) the flour and water together to make the dough, and shares linguistic links across Northern Europe with most Proto-Germanic languages. Proto-Germanic (proto- from Ancient Greek, prôtos meaning ‘first’: think ‘prototype’) is the name given to one of the several off-shoots of language groups from which nearly all European and Asian languages are thought to originate (Proto-Germanic languages are German, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, Flemish, Frisian, Swedish and English – as well as many other languages now considered ‘dead’). The hypothesized ‘central’ language has been labelled Indo-European and was thought to have been brought to Europe and Asia by the first tribes of Homo sapiens (the ancestors of modern man: Latin homo-, ‘man’ – think, ‘homosexual’ ; sapiens, ‘knowing’ – think, ‘sapient’) to arrive from the Middle-East/North-Africa, replacing the languages of Neanderthal man (an earlier sub species of humans, named after the German valley where remains were first discovered, ‘Neander Thal’ – Neander being the classicised German name ‘Neumann’ + thal, meaning ‘valley’) as well as the people – though Finnish (North Eastern Europe) and Basque (in Northern Spain/Southern France) are the exceptions, thought to have evolved from Neanderthal language elements, surviving due to the isolated nature of the regions. As a result of a shared language heritage, many words seem to echo across languages. ‘Dough’ is one such example, with Indo-European roots dhoigh-, dheigh-, dhigh, relating to the kneading, smearing and form/forming of clay. The root spirals across Europe and Asia giving us (amongst other things) dih (‘smear’) and dēhas (‘body’) in Sanskrit, relating to the word diz (‘mould’) used by Xenophon (another clever Greek person) combined with pairi (‘around’), when describing the walls around the desert gardens of Persian Kings. These gardens, as well as the word created to describe them, became an ever-lasting symbol when taken into the Greek Bible: parádeisos in Greek became paradise in English. The language hypothesized to have preceded Indo-European has rather ingeniously been dubbed, Proto-Indo-European, or PIE for short.

Pie is another word related to the mashing of languages and miscellaneous meats, but not as straightforwardly as one might think. When pie, as a word was first spoken in English, it wasn’t a pastry-surrounded lump of meat: it was a bird. In English bird names we still have the Magpie, though the ‘Mag-’ element (likely to be an abbreviation of ‘Margaret’) is from a later tradition of adding personal names to animals (similarly, Americans can still be heard talking of Jack-rabbits). The root of this pie in English is in the magpie’s Latin name, pica (relate to the Latin for woodpecker, picus). The adjective pied comes from the bird, originally referring to something with black and white elements (think piebald horses – the ‘bald’ bit refers to the white patches) before moving to mean ‘multi-colours’ (as in the multi-coloured robes of the ‘Pied Piper’). As well as its colouring, the magpie is noted for its kleptomanic (i.e. ‘thieving’: from Greek, kléptēs, ‘thief’ related to Gothic, hlifan, ‘steal’ – think ‘shoplifter’) gathering tendencies, often creating a jumble of different items in its nest. The pie we eat today is reasonably assumed to have taken its name from the nest arrangement, itself a jumbled assortment of ingredients. The meat or fish pie chewet has been similarly linked with French, chouette (‘jackdaw’ – another personal-named bird), and an alternative 16th century English name for the magpie, haggess, suggests a similar origin for the Scottish food-jumble, haggis.

Before this move, pies were referred to in writing as coffins/coffins: resembling their body-housing namesakes, with tall sides and a lid. These large coffins were often used as centre-pieces at Royal banquets and would conceal exotic birds and animals, or even people (I can only assume they were lightly baked). The nursery rhyme ‘Sing-a-song-of-sixpence’ is based on the practice. Jeffrey Hudson (1619-1682), a famous 17th century dwarf, was served up as a child in a cold pie to King Charles I and his Queen. Hudson climbed out of the pie clad in a miniature suite of armour and was later dubbed Lord Minimus, before going on to serve as the Queen’s trusted companion. He was twice kidnapped by pirates and fell from his high position as court-favourite to eating humble pie as a slave in Africa.

Humble-pie is the punch-line to a joke which long preceded Lord Minimus, based on word-play that might not be recognized now that the word umbles has fallen out of common usage. Umbles, as a word, came to England with William the Conqueror and his French lords and originates in Latin, lumulus, ‘loin’. ‘Umble pie’ was made from the heart, liver and other off-cuts of deer: eaten by huntsmen and servants while their lords ate venison (see: De Factoid the Fourth). Umble pie was thus associated with people of a more ‘humble’ position (‘humble’ comes from another Latin word, humilis, ‘low’, ‘slight’ from where we get humility and humiliate) and was probably helped toward the current association by the southern verbal tendency to drop the ‘h’. The lads of the Essex-born super-group ‘Humble Pie’ may have shared in this linguistic practice while painting the town red in the 1970’s. That colourful phrase is claimed to have originated with the paint brush practices of the ‘Mad Marquis’ Henry de la Poer Beresford in the great English pie town of Melton Mowbray. The town’s pork pie tradition arose as a by-product of its cheese industry when the whey from its famous stilton was discovered to make excellent pig-feed. The Marquis was supposed to have painted the town the aforementioned colour after getting pie-eyed (i.e. ‘drunk’, from the wide-eyed, blank expression likening to a pie-top) on too much booze. One thinks a nice pie might have done him some good…

De Factoid the Tenth: coming soon...


Anonymous said...

Wow Adam, you never cease to amaze me. Although it was a bit of a steeplechase, fast facts and lots of hurdles, it was as usual full of new etymological info.

Great Post.

Just thinking, while I raced through it, did I miss any mention of the Pork Pie? I'll read again later.


Komplete Khaos said...

amazing! you learn something new everyday i guess

Adam James Nall said...

Thank you very much, AV. I though the Indo-European stuff was pretty heavy (you should see the stuff I had to read to type the simplified version!) but I thought it was worth knowing. I may well revisit it now I've a point of reference for readers. 'Pork pie' only really makes a brief showing at the end (with Melton Mowbray). I suppose 'pork pie' is propably an entry in its own right. We shall see...

Komplete Khaos, thank you for the comment, I'm glad to have been informative. Thanks as well for the subscription/following. I'll post again soon.



Anonymous said...

Suggeting a theme for you: Roast Beef & Yorkshire Pud.

I had imagined the heavy reading involved to get through the last post successfully.


Adam James Nall said...

Yes there is rather a lot can be said for roast beef (the soldiers in Shakespeare's Henry V springs to mind), I'll certainly add that to the list. Have started research for the next few so that might be De Factoid the Twelfth or Thirteenth!

Thanks again, AV.


Electro Girl said...

Hey Adam! Thanks for commenting my blog.

You have a very insightful blog, I'm learning so much! It's a great way to distract me at work too. Keep up the good work lol


Adam James Nall said...

Thank you, Danni. I'll be sure to pop by again sometime. Glad you've picked a few things up. Shows I'm good for something!

Best and thanks for reading,


Relax Max said...

Impressive! I tried to gather information about (meat) pies on one of my own blogs a while back, and learned the word "pasty" for the first time (I am not British) and a lot of other things about pies.

But your pie info takes the cake.


Adam James Nall said...

Thank you, RM. Glad you enjoyed reading. Where is you're 'pie' article? I'd be intriuged to have a read.



p.s. I've an article on 'takes the cake' as well if interesed: