Stories behind Words: humble pie

Posted by on November 20, 2013

www.wordle.netBeing forced to eat anything is unpleasant, but humble pie must rank among the most disagreeable dishes of all. By eating it you acknowledge that you were completely wrong and that someone else – the person making you eat it – was right. But what is humble pie? And was it ever a physical rather than a metaphorical dish?

Humbles are the insides of an animal, especially a deer, used as food. The original term numbles, from the Middle French nombles, acquired a variant umbles, sometimes later spelled humbles. All three of these terms are archaic; your butcher will give you a baffled look if you ask for some umbles along with your chops.

The OED cites several references both to the organs themselves and to an actual pie containing them:

1523 J. Skelton Goodly Garlande of Laurell 1240 The vmblis of venyson … To fayre maistres Anne that shuld haue be sent.
1736 N. Bailey Dict. Domesticum, [To make] An Umble Pye. Boil the umbles of a deer till they are very tender [etc.].
1663 S. Pepys Diary 8 July (1971) IV. 221 Mrs. Turner … did bring us an Umble-pie hot out of her oven.

At some point, however, the resemblance of the deer’s (h/n)umbles to the adjective humble became irresistible and the literal pie became a metaphorical one signifying self-abasement:

1854 Thackeray Newcomes I. xiv. 136 You must get up and eat humble pie this morning, my boy.

Today the literal meaning has vanished, lingering only in continuing ideas of humble pie as something physical, so people talk not only about ‘eating humble pie’ but about having ‘a big piece of humble pie’, or ‘another slice/helping’ of it. The expression, as well as recalling a vanished dish redolent of the medieval past, contains a fossil word (the noun humble(s) used attributively) and a rebracketing (of umble to humble). For more on fossil words see Stan’s post on Fossil words of yore.

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