Blame it on the bird.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the term “pie-eyed”? Apparently the word “pie” is from the printing trade meaning “a muddle of words or letters.” Does the meaning lie there? — Wendy.

Not exactly. English has two kinds of “pie.” The older “pie,” first appearing in Old English, is the original name for the bird we now call a “magpie.” Just where the “mag” came from is uncertain, but it is probably short for “Margaret,” a custom of the day being adding personal names to those of animals (e.g., Tom Turkey, Jenny Wren, etc.). The root of “pie” in English is the Latin name for the magpie, “pica,” which is related to the Latin for woodpecker, “picus.”

pieeye08.pngMagpies are known for three characteristics: their striking black and white plumage, their raucous calls, and their habit of collecting strange assortments of things in their nests (bits of string, shiny objects, etc.). The magpie’s feathers gave us the adjective “pied” in the 14th century, meaning “streaked or marked with black and white” (as in a “piebald” horse, the “bald” referring to the white patches). “Pied” was later extended to mean “multicolored,” as in the “Pied Piper” of the fable, who was dressed in clothes of many colors.

The second sort of “pie” is the familiar dish, a pastry shell filled with an assortment of ingredients, usually including either meat or fruit. This “pie” appeared in English several hundred years after “pie” meaning “magpie,” and opinions vary as to the origin of this “pie.” But the first edible “pies” were a jumble of meat and vegetables, reminiscent of a magpie’s trove of odd objects, making it probable, in the view of many authorities, that the two “pies” are actually the same word. The bird’s quirky housekeeping, in short, gave us our modern “pie.” A similar linkage ties the name of the Scottish dish “haggis” (a meat and vegetable concoction) to “haggess,” a 16th century English name for the magpie.

The printers’ term “pie” for a jumble of letters so disordered as to resemble the makings of a pie is just one of the descendants of “pie” the food (and, in fact, printers adopted the Latin name of the magpie, “pica,” for a style of type). “Pie” has also been pressed into service as a metaphor for “the whole” of anything (“They want a bigger slice of the pie”), an index of simplicity (“easy as pie,” probably referring to the eating of pie, not the making), and even a sardonic comment on promises of happiness in the afterlife (“Pie in the sky,” coined by labor organizer and troubadour Joe Hill in 1911). “Pie-eyed,” usually meaning “extremely drunk” or “extremely tired,” dates to 1900 and comes from the fixed, wide-eyed stare of the afflicted, with eyes as wide and blank as the top of a pie (“They put him down at a Table and sat around him and inhaled the Scotch until they were all Pie-Eyed,” George Ade, 1904).

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