April 08, 2014

Rephrasing: A Second Helping of Pie

Eurasian Magpies
Two Eurasian Pies (Pica pica) outside The Prado, Madrid

When I was researching my last amateur etymology piece (on the Pied-billed Grebe), I read a lot of things about the word “pie”. Most of it didn’t really pertain to our core subject of birds so, as interesting as it was, I left it out. But who doesn’t love having more than one kind of pie? In addition to being the original word for Magpie, there are two other definitions of pie: the kind we eat and a second antiquated word meaning to mix something up. Interestingly, many etymologists suggest that all three definitions are connected.

The word pie in the English language was first used to refer to the bird, starting around the mid-13th century. It's believed that it was around a century later that pie, the delicious pastry which was originally filled with a variety of mixed or minced meats, took its name from the way Magpies are known for collecting random objects to decorate their nests. Our third usage of pie arose about two hundred years later and appears to have been used mainly in the old printing days; after a printing job, the printer’s blocks would be all mixed up or pied before being sorted into their proper boxes. And when you go back to the Latin word for Magpie, Pica, you are easily brought back to the world of typesetting with pica as a modern typographic unit of measure, although this seems to be coincidental here.

So our beloved apple and pumpkin pies (fruit was introduced as a pie filling around the beginning of the 17th century), not to mention rhubarb and blueberry, may all have been named after a bird. I even read somewhere, thought it's a little far-fetched for me, that the blackbirds from the classic nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence, are an allusion to the humble magpie.
Red-winged Blackbird
(Not related to the pie-filling blackbirds of Europe, but look at him sing)

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing
Wasn't that a dainty dish
To set before the king?

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