Welcome to the Wordlady blog!

This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
You can also order my best-selling books, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do With Pigs and Only in Canada You Say. Fun and informative!


Subscribe! Fun facts about English delivered weekly right to your inbox. IT'S FREE! Fill in your email address below.
Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Follow by email

Search This Blog

Friday, August 22, 2014

Easy as pie


What better time than August, with its abundance of fresh fruit, to talk about the word "pie".

In Latin the word pica was the name for the bird we call a magpie. The French did their usual drop-a-consonant squishing job on this word and turned it into pie (still the French word for this bird). But after we borrowed it from French, we got creative.

First of all, we added the nickname “Mag”, short form for “Margaret”, to the word for the bird, so that now we call it a “magpie”.

Then, in the 1300s, we started to use "pie" for a pastry-enclosed dish of meat or fish and other ingredients. Although the etymology of our edible pies is uncertain, it could be related to the bird, in reference to either its spotted appearance or its tendency to collect different articles, pies being made of assorted ingredients. 

A couple of centuries later, we got the bright idea of putting fruit in pies, and by the 1800s pie was so popular that eating it had become the quintessence of something easy to do, hence "easy as pie", and one's reward in heaven was referred to as "pie in the sky".

To return to the Middle Ages, though, another development of the word "pie" will be of particular interest to indexers. 

A third type of "pie" was a book of directions for church services, listing how saints' feast days could be moved if they coincided with a big feast day such as Pentecost or Easter. Why was this book called a "pie"? Possibly because the pages had a very black-and-white blotchy appearance from unevenly spaced blocks of text. Other similar types of reference books also came to be known as pies or pie books, especially alphabetical indexes to records. There was even a verb in the 17th century, to “pie” meaning to make an alphabetical index.
(Incidentally, pica the typeface is possibly related to this, perhaps having been used in one of these liturgical indexes, called “pica” in Latin.)

There are more unsuspected links between indexing and magpies, however. 

A "gazetteer" is a geographical index, for a map or atlas. This word was first used in 1693. This comes from the word "gazette" from Italian gazzetta.  The gazzetta was a type of newspaper first published in Venice about the middle of the 16th century; similar news sheets appeared a bit later in England. They seem to have been the tabloids of the time; the OED says "the untrustworthy nature of their reports is often alluded to by writers of that period; thus Florio [an early-17th-century Italian-English lexicographer] explains gazzette as ‘running reports, daily newes, idle intelligences, or flim flam tales that are daily written from Italie, namely from Rome and Venice’."

The Venetian gazzetta could be had for the price of a coin also called a gazzetta. But there is a possible  connection to gazza (magpie), as the publication was a gallimaufry [there, I've always wanted to use that word!] of trivial items like those gathered by the notoriously thieving bird.

When I revealed these hitherto undisclosed links between their profession and magpies to the Indexing Society of Canada and pointed out that a magpie was in fact a good symbol of what indexers do, flitting over a book and removing attention-grabbing items to their "nest" at the back of the book, the indexers were so tickled by it that they have adopted the magpie as their mascot and created this very handsome pin:

Magpie Pins for Sale (continued)

P.S. If you liked this post, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! Sign up here.

If you find the English language fascinating, you should check out my entertaining history of the English language courses. More info here

Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady

1 comment:

  1. Hi Katherine, Thank you for posting this article. It really speaks to us indexers. I remember when you first presented it to the Indexing Society of Canada.


About Me

My photo
Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.