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shameless pleading






Blame it on the bird.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the term “pie-eyed”? Apparently the word “pie” is from the printing trade meaning “a muddle of words or letters.” Does the meaning lie there? — Wendy.

Not exactly. English has two kinds of “pie.” The older “pie,” first appearing in Old English, is the original name for the bird we now call a “magpie.” Just where the “mag” came from is uncertain, but it is probably short for “Margaret,” a custom of the day being adding personal names to those of animals (e.g., Tom Turkey, Jenny Wren, etc.). The root of “pie” in English is the Latin name for the magpie, “pica,” which is related to the Latin for woodpecker, “picus.”

pieeye08.pngMagpies are known for three characteristics: their striking black and white plumage, their raucous calls, and their habit of collecting strange assortments of things in their nests (bits of string, shiny objects, etc.). The magpie’s feathers gave us the adjective “pied” in the 14th century, meaning “streaked or marked with black and white” (as in a “piebald” horse, the “bald” referring to the white patches). “Pied” was later extended to mean “multicolored,” as in the “Pied Piper” of the fable, who was dressed in clothes of many colors.

The second sort of “pie” is the familiar dish, a pastry shell filled with an assortment of ingredients, usually including either meat or fruit. This “pie” appeared in English several hundred years after “pie” meaning “magpie,” and opinions vary as to the origin of this “pie.” But the first edible “pies” were a jumble of meat and vegetables, reminiscent of a magpie’s trove of odd objects, making it probable, in the view of many authorities, that the two “pies” are actually the same word. The bird’s quirky housekeeping, in short, gave us our modern “pie.” A similar linkage ties the name of the Scottish dish “haggis” (a meat and vegetable concoction) to “haggess,” a 16th century English name for the magpie.

The printers’ term “pie” for a jumble of letters so disordered as to resemble the makings of a pie is just one of the descendants of “pie” the food (and, in fact, printers adopted the Latin name of the magpie, “pica,” for a style of type). “Pie” has also been pressed into service as a metaphor for “the whole” of anything (“They want a bigger slice of the pie”), an index of simplicity (“easy as pie,” probably referring to the eating of pie, not the making), and even a sardonic comment on promises of happiness in the afterlife (“Pie in the sky,” coined by labor organizer and troubadour Joe Hill in 1911). “Pie-eyed,” usually meaning “extremely drunk” or “extremely tired,” dates to 1900 and comes from the fixed, wide-eyed stare of the afflicted, with eyes as wide and blank as the top of a pie (“They put him down at a Table and sat around him and inhaled the Scotch until they were all Pie-Eyed,” George Ade, 1904).

10 comments to Pie-Eyed

  • Topi Linkala

    In UK pie, as a food, doesn’t necessary have pastry crust, but can be a owen baked dish with mashed potatoe on top. Shepeard’s pie has minced meat a gravy under the potatoe and fishpie has various fishes, veggies and sauce under the potatoe.


  • Jules

    I’ll drink to that description!

  • Tim A

    But how much credence we should give to someone who cannot even spell a simple word such as POTATO ?

    [Ed. — I’ll bet he can. He just didn’t this time.]

  • patti

    Do you have an origin for the expression : “to go pie” used when one has lost all their money playing at mah jongg?

  • Mark Holroyd

    As a trained compositor and letterpress printer we always spelt ‘pi’ not ‘pie’. ‘Pica’ is a unit of measurement used in compositing not a style of type.
    Letterpress printing has it’s own unique system of measurement based on the one inch measurement which is subdivided into points. A ‘pica’ is equivalent to one sixth of an inch or twelve ‘points’, their being seventy two ‘points’ to one inch.

  • Karen Shotting

    I like the George Ade reference. He also used it in “The Honest Effort to Go the Distance and Then the Melancholy Fluke” in “Breaking into Society” (1902). “Consequently he would Stick, with his Breastbone against the Railing, and continue to hoist until he was Pie-Eyed.”

  • KatieC

    Well, how much disbelief there must be of the trained letterpress printer when he writes “it’s” for “its” and “their” instead of “there”…

  • Marg C

    One Hindi word for drunk is “Piye huye.” Did they get that from the colonial English, or did the English adopt it?

  • Roger

    When working with hot metal moveable type, a non-standard character is known as a pi character (maybe due to the mathematical symbol). If the compositor dropped the type tray on the floor the mixed up letters were “pied”. The unlucky person who had to sort out the resultant mess of tiny letters and symbols ended up pi-eyed – unable to focus with sore eyes.

  • Paul

    My mom used to call me pied-eyed as a child when I looked tired.

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