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shameless pleading

Easy as pie

Mince and cheddar + coffee = Nirvana.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve always wondered what is so darned “easy” about pie. Can you enlighten us all on this? — Mark Anderson.

I could have sworn I already did, but it seems that I was wrong. All I did was parenthetically refer to “easy as pie” in a column I wrote last year on “pie-eyed,” which is usually used to mean “extremely drunk” and comes from the wide-eyed (like big, round pies) blank stare often seen in persons who have partaken of tee many martoonies.

pie09Writing teachers always exhort their young students to “write what you know,” i.e., make use of their own experiences in life to generate ideas. This has always struck me as dubious advice, since it seems to produce little but novels about how unfair the world is to young writers. On the other hand, “speak what you know” has worked quite well for the English language. Given a popular food like pie, we’ve managed to cook up a whole range of metaphors and similes involving the humble pie. There is, of course, the very phrase “humble pie,” which, before it was the name of a 70s rock group, was most often found in the phrase “to eat humble pie,” meaning to own up to having made a serious error. “Humble” in this phrase is a bit of a pun. The original form was “to eat umble pie,” “umbles” being the innards of game such as deer, and “umble pie” being a lowly dish usually served to servants and the like.

But “pie” has more often served as a symbol of something highly desirable, even if illusory, as in the phrase “pie in the sky” meaning “the promise of a good life in the future used to excuse hardship in the present.” The phrase was coined in 1911 by Joe Hill, troubadour and organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World in his song “The Preacher and the Slave” (“Work and pray, live on hay, you’ll get pie in the sky when you die”). Politicians, of course, are always promising voters a “bigger piece of the pie,” meaning a greater share of wealth, but such promises usually fail to materialize on budget “pie charts,” a term dating to the 1920s. One might wonder, given that such pledges by leaders have been broken for millennia, why it took until 1977 for “pie” to become a verb meaning “to strike someone, usually a public figure, in the face with a custard pie.”

The key to “easy as pie,” which first appeared in the early 20th century meaning “extremely easy or simple,” is that it refers to eating pie, rather than making a pie (which can be quite complicated). Pie has been used as a symbol of something very pleasurable or agreeable (“nice as pie,” “sweet as pie”) since the mid-19th century, as well as meaning anything eagerly sought or regarded as a prize (“I wanted to reach Fort Larned before daylight, in order to avoid if possible the Indians, to whom it would have been ‘pie’ to have caught me there on foot,” W.F. Cody, Story of the Wild West, 1888). So “easy as pie” simply employs “pie” as a general-purpose metaphorical superlative, much as “piece of cake” is used to mean “effortless,” as easy and pleasurable as eating a piece of cake. It is, of course, also “easy” to eat actual pie, as anyone who has left me alone in a room with a pumpkin pie can attest.

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