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Pronounced /pʌɪ/Help with pronunciation

Sometimes it’s the simplest words that jump out of the page at you, like pie, for example. There was a report this week by John Vidal about the Bionic Baking Brigade, a group that pushes custard pies in the face of celebrities (one of their members did over Bill Gates in Brussels earlier in the year, and this week’s target in London was Renato Ruggiero, head of the World Trade Organisation). In writing the report, Mr Vidal sought brevity, coining the verb to pie as shorthand for “to push one or more custard pies in somebody’s face”.

Let us not quibble over the obvious point that a custard pie is not a pie, but a flan. Nor over the fact that clowns’ custard pies usually contain shaving cream, not custard, since the Belgian originators of this pomposity-pricking technique use real ones, and eat them if they fail to pie their targets. They call themselves flâneurs, people who throw flans, a French-language pun since the word usually means a lounger or saunterer, an idle man about town (we borrowed it last century with the same sense).

Now you’d think that such a simple word as pie would have been verbed years ago, but even the big Oxford English Dictionary hardly gives it house-room, briefly citing three usages: a once-off coinage from 1657 in the sense of repeating one’s words like a magpie, a local term that means to put potatoes in a heap and cover them to protect them from frost, and a specialist printing term for accidentally jumbling up type. Hardly mainstream stuff.

The last of these is obviously linked with printer’s pie, but you might think that there’s little conceivable connection between magpies and custard pies. There’s some doubt about the origins of pie in these various senses, but the consensus is that they do all come from the same source, the Latin word pica, which meant a magpie. Linnaeus borrowed the word for the genus of these noisy large birds and our European magpie, the one the Romans knew, now glories in the duplicated cognomen of Pica pica.

The old name for the bird in English is just pie. The prefix mag wasn’t added until the seventeenth century. It’s from the personal name Margaret, and there’s a dialect name maggot-pie which may come from the French name Margot la pie; why Margaret should have been attached to the bird in two languages I haven’t been able to find out. Perhaps it’s connected in some way with ancient superstitions about the magpie being a bird of ill omen. Or it might be from the old habit of adding personal names to those of birds, as in Jenny wren or Tom tit.

But the interesting thing is that the word pie for the bird is at least half a century older than the word pie for the dish. The first pies in Britain contained a mixture of meat and vegetables, what one writer has disdainfully called “stews in a pastry case” (still a fair description for some meat pies). One historian of the language has suggested that the food was named after the bird because the varied ingredients reminded people of the birds’ habit of collecting together all sorts of bits and pieces in their nests. Nobody’s been able to prove or disprove this thesis, and after all this time it’s unlikely anybody ever will.

The printer’s sense is an obvious extension of the same idea, of type which has got muddled like the ingredients of a meat pie into an inchoate mess, useless until it has been carefully sorted back into its constituent parts. And, as an incidental point, printers re-borrowed the original word pica from medieval Latin for a size of type.

Another very obvious characteristic of the magpie is its patches of black and white colouring — you have to get quite close before you see the other colours on its wing and tail feathers. So the word came to be applied to anything multicoloured in patches, though not always black and white. Piebald horses are coloured in blocks of black and white, and many birds and other animals have pied in their names, such as the pied wagtails that I often see bobbing about outside my window. And pica, in English pye or pie, a set of rules for calculating the dates of moveable Christian feasts, was apparently so named because the black-and-white text on the page reminded clerics of the patches on a magpie.

And now we have a verb. I’d like to think it takes a permanent place in the lexicon. Just pie in the sky, do you think?

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Page created 07 Nov 1998; Last updated 14 Nov 1998