Food Facts & Lore, Fricassee of Words

Fricassee of Words – To Eat Humble Pie

Fricassee: Meat cut into pieces and stewed in gravy.

Fricassee of Words: Musings on food-inspired expressions, words and word play, with occasional bits and pieces of kitchen jargon too.

Don’t stir the pot, go fry an egg, two eggs in a basket are better than one hen in the bush… you get the picture by now, and here is today’s food-inspired expression for us to pick at.

158 - 1216 - pieTo Eat Humble Pie

Meaning – To admit an error or undesirable action, and to show humility and act apologetically as a result of this admission.

If you walked up to someone in the 14th or 15th century announcing that you had just eaten humble pie, they might have replied with one of two comments: “Don’t ye mean umble pie, mate?” or “Ha! Me mum makes a fine umble pie. Ye’s making me wants vittles!”

Back in the early 13th century, numbles were common ingredients in the kitchen. This was the name given to all animal entrails used in meals, not just pies. You could say that numble pie is a precursor to what we call meat pie today. Hearts, livers and such were known as numbles.

We must remember that the majority of people could not read or write. In fact, a written reference to numble pie does not occur until the 17th century, and without the “n” which had long been dropped. In everyday conversation, saying “a numble pie” or “an umble pie” sounds just the same. Without literacy to make a distinction, there is no reason to question proper spelling or even proper pronunciation. Mum’s umble pie was tasty no matter how you spellt it!

Incidentally, there is another example of a word mutation attributed to illiteracy during the same time period, and the word in question is related to the table also. It is the word apron, originally napron. You can see how easy a misunderstanding can arise without the visual aid of spelled out words. Simply consider the sounds: A napron and an apron.  The distortion reaches even further, but we’re saving this for another article. It is quite fascinating. You’ll see.

Back to our humble umble nibbles. The expression “to eat humble pie” is specific to America. In the UK they eat crow. Pie and stews made using the entire animal, including entrails (numbles and umbles and such) were a staple on the tables of common people. Common is not used pejoratively here, but merely to signify “the people” as opposed to the rich ruling casts. The reference to humility may have derived from this simple fact.

Then there is the rather interesting fact that the adjective “humble” finds its roots in the Latin word for loins, the very parts of our bodies we humans have chosen to humbly shield from sight. And we come full circle to a powerful concept that has evolved independently from the written word. Humility is a complex idea, yet one that is deeply and universally understood whether you say “eat crow,” “eat your words,” “eat humble pie,” “umbles” or “numbles.”

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