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shameless pleading

Peckish

Visions of woodpecker stew.

Dear Word Detective: There is a woodpecker in our neighborhood who always seems to be hungry. I am routinely out on ladders filling in the holes he pecks in our house. This is hard work, and I usually come in feeling a bit peckish myself. Is the word “peckish” related to my nemesis’ destructive habits? — Steve Ford.

So a woodpecker is pecking at your house? Weird. We have woodpeckers around here, but they stick to pecking at the trees. Come to think of it, that’s probably because the trees don’t sport vinyl siding. But still, since the birds are hunting for bugs in the wood, doesn’t that mean you might have termites? And that, boys and girls, is why I don’t get invited to parties.

Incidentally, in the Southern US woodpeckers are often called “peckerwoods,” and “peckerwood” also has a considerable history as a derogatory term for a poor white person, particularly among African-Americans in the rural South. This use gave us “peckerwood” as an adjective meaning “shabby,” “inferior” or otherwise supposedly characteristic of the poor white Southerner (“The stern, melodramatic portrait of Earl’s older brother Huey [Long] as a fantastic demagogue — a Peckerwood Caligula,” 1989). “Peckerwood Caligula,” by the way, was a term coined by the great A.J. Liebling in his writings about Louisiana Governor Earl Long, who in his third term took up with a stripper named Blaze Starr and wound up in a mental hospital.

I seem to spend most of my time around here explaining why words that look as though they must be related actually aren’t. So it comes as a positive pleasure to affirm that “peckish” and “woodpecker” are, in fact, related; not directly related, because the world can stand only so much fun, but nonetheless solid second cousins.

In the beginning was the verb “to peck,” which first appeared in the 14th century and apparently arose as a variant form of “to pick,” which came in turn from “pike,” a spear-like pointed object, which came from a confusing tangle of ancient forms that may have involved “picus,” the old Latin word for “woodpecker.” In any case, “pike,” “pick” and “peck” are closely related and share many senses, but we’ll focus on “peck” here.

Most of the early senses of “peck” as a verb have to do with birds striking things with their beaks (“These … Parrots peck the fairest Fruit,” Dryden, 1690). Such “pecking” can include attacks on other animals (“The dog’s nose shot into the flowers and was promptly pecked by an angry mallard hen,” 2002) and even, as in Daphne du Maurier’s story The Birds, people. But birds “peck” most often in search of food, so by 1390, “to peck” with reference to a bird meant “to pick up small amounts with the beak” (“Small clusters of pigeons were pecking crumbs from the paving stones,” 1984).

“Woodpeckers,” of course, “peck” in both senses of the term. They “peck” holes in trees, houses, etc., with their beaks, and then “peck out” insects or larvae from within the wood. It seems like a large expenditure of energy for such slim pickings, but since we still have woodpeckers it must make sense in the long run.

The behavior of birds “pecking up” small amounts of food at a time led, by the 16th century, to the use of “peck” in reference to humans who ate small amounts of food or ate reluctantly or fussily (“His little brother pecked at the food on his plate, eating little,” 1966). This produced, by the early 18th century, the use of “peckish” to mean “somewhat hungry” or simply “hungry” and metaphorically eager to “peck” (“I wish we had dinner; I’m proud to say I’m quite peckish,” 1793). If you’re “peckish” you may not be feeling famished, but you’re definitely in the mood for a snack (“At four in the afternoon, everyone feels a little peckish, but only the British have institutionalized this feeling,” 1988).

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