Umble Pie


No, that’s not a spelling mistake. I did mean to say umble.

These days, when we say “eat humble pie”, we mean that we are apologising for something that we have done, atoning for a mistake. We are being humble.

But that’s not where the phrase came from.

In medieval times, umbles were the innards of an animal, usually a deer. They were the heart, liver, spleen, kidneys. In other words, all the ucky bits that were left once you had carved off the good meat.

To eat umble pie literally meant that you going to eat a poor man’s pie. A pie made out of umbles.

The name changed when the word umble dropped out of common usage. At that point, people assumed that the phrase umble pie meant humble pie. Then, as if by magic, the phrase changed.

Right now, I would guess that more than 95% of the English speaking word would say humble pie and assume that umble was a typo. As I am typing this, Word is red underlining the word umble. I suspect that some parts of the internet would have auto-corrected it by now.

Incidentally, there is a delightful misunderstanding in the (current) Wikipedia entry for humble/ umble pie. It says:

It has occasionally been suggested (by, among others, QI) that ‘umbles’ were considered inferior food and that in medieval times the pie was often served to lower-class people, possibly following speculation in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable but there is little evidence for this. Early references in cookbooks such as Liber Cure Cocorum present a grand dish with exotic spices.

This falls into the common trap of thinking that the past was just like the present, only in black and white. We might live in a literate era where most households have at least one cookbook. But our peasant ancestors usually could not read. Cookbooks would be preserved for the richest of households where, naturally, even the most basic of peasant dishes would be jazzed up with fancy spices.

Talking of pies and popular etymology, I’ve blogged in the past about the great cottage pie/ shepherd’s pie mystery.

Many people, particularly in the UK, will insist that a shepherd’s pie is made with lamb and a cottage pie is made with beef. After all, shepherds have lambs, don’t they?

And while this is all very neat and logical, it has absolutely zero basis in history. The earliest cookbooks use cottage pie and shepherd’s pie interchangeably for any pie made out of any minced meat.

What’s more, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that these were traditional dishes or that they were ever eaten by shepherds who may or may not have lived in a cottage. The dishes were included in cookbooks aimed at upper middle class households. In some cases, the cookbooks were written to encourage people to buy new-fangled mincing machines – which were far too expensive for your common or garden shepherd.

The modern meaning of shepherd’s pie seems to date from the last fifty years or so. It may have come about when supermarkets started making ready meals for families who were too busy to cook from raw ingredients.

But this cosy idea of a rural shepherd tucking into a plate of shepherd’s pie made from lamb? Nope, sorry. It may well have happened once or twice, but he almost certainly won’t have called it a shepherd’s pie or a cottage pie. That’s a pure marketing invention.

The point is that shepherd’s pie = lamb feels right, in the same way that humble pie feels right. The fact that both are historically inaccurate does not seem to matter.

It’s called popular or folk etymology. We give a new meaning to a word because it sounds right. It feels like a more common sense explanation.

My favourite bit of popular etymology isn’t a pie. It’s a hill.

Pendle Hill in Lancashire literally means hill hill hill. It includes the Cumbric word “Pen”, the old English world “hyll” (hiding in the “dle” bit) and the modern English word “hill”.

Hill hill hill.

You couldn’t make it up.

The earliest inhabitants would have simply called it Pen. It was their hill, nothing more, nothing less.

Then a later tribe moved in. They didn’t know the meaning of Pen, but it seemed a pretty name and all the locals were using it. So they called it Penhull or Penhyl – hill hill. As they couldn’t write, there were multiple spellings until the word arrived at Pendle.

Later on, new arrivals didn’t know the meaning of Pendle, so they simply adopted it as a name. And because it was a hill, they stuck the word hill on the end. And there you have it Pendle Hill – hill hill hill. Quite possibly the hilliest hill in the world.

Apart from Bredon Hill in Worcestershire, which also means hill hill hill.

And all of these:

The English language is continually evolving. We usually don’t notice it because we live in the here and now. We often insist that the meanings of words are fixed – that whatever we currently believe to be true is true. Always has been and always will.

The reality is that change is all around us. We are a part of that change, whether we like it or not. The meanings that we cling to now will almost certainly be different in a few generation’s time. And we often have a romanticised and muddled idea of where our existing words came from.


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