Q&A: Why do we eat humble pie?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we are spilling the beans about eating humble pie.

Q: Hi AWC, can we talk about pie?

A: Oh, do you mean the mathematical constant that is approximately                                               3.14159265358979323846264338327950?

Q: Stop being irrational. I’m talking about a certain kind of pie.

A: What kind of pie?

Q: Humble pie. Specifically, why do we admit fault by eating humble pie? Why not a humble burger or casserole? Is it something to do with pastry?

A: We’re pretty sure it has nothing to do with pastry.

Q: Is it because ‘a pile of pies’ sounds like ‘apologise’?

A: Again, no. But we applaud your creativity.

Q: So where do humble pies come from?

A: Well, let’s start by getting all the rock dwellers up to speed. The phrase “to eat humble pie” is said in reference to what Macquarie Dictionary describes as “being humiliated” or “forced to apologise”.

Q: Yes yes, but why a pie?

A: Well, the question should really be “why humble?”…

Q: Okay fine then, spill the beans.

A: Actually, that’s another foodie phrase. “Spill the beans” was first used in 1902, initially meaning to cause an upset in horse racing or sports, before arriving at today’s “reveal a secret” definition in 1919.

Q: Okay, we’ve spilt the beans. Great. And I don’t mean to upset the applecart here, but can you just tell me the origin of “humble pie”?

A: Ah, that’s another interesting one – dating back to “upsetting the cart” in Roman times, while the exact “applecart” phrase is from the late 1700s. It’s more common in British than American English.

Q: Humble. Pie. Now.

A: Okay yes, of course. The “humble” actually comes from the “umbles” – a plural of “numble” meaning a deer’s offal (waste parts) – fed to servants of lower rank in a pie during medieval times, while their masters ate the tastier cuts of meat. It was a pie filled with umbles – an umble pie. As for “why pies?” – well, because they were popular. You could say they were the avocado toast of the Middle Ages.

Q: So “humble” and “umbles” are not related at all?

A: No, except that they SOUND similar. The idiom came about in 1830 as a play on words on the fact that people dropped the “H” sound when saying the word “humble” at the time. To eat a pie filled with umbles was akin to being lowly, or humbled.

Q: So what happened to the word “umble/s”?

A: Much like the practice of making such a pie, the word has died out – leaving the phrase, but hiding the pun that created it.

Q: So all this time, we’ve actually been eating “umble pie”…

A: Well, those of us with British English as our base have. In America, they prefer the term, “to eat crow”.

Q: That sounds almost as disgusting as eating deer offal.

A: Yes it does. And in this case, there is no pun – just the humiliation of eating something that’s definitely not finger lickin’ good. It also dates from the mid 19th century and means exactly the same thing as to eat humble pie.

Q: Wait, isn’t a “crow eater” someone from South Australia?

A: Yes, it is a nickname that dates from the 1880s, however it is completely unrelated to the idiom. The AFL’s Adelaide Crows name clearly comes from the nickname.

Q: Okay, thanks for this lesson. I think I have indigestion from all this dodgy food though.

A: It was probably the beans…

Enjoy the weekly Q&As? Browse the growing archive on our blog – over 200 Q&As tackling the irks and quirks of the English language.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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