Sweetie Pie

Four and twenty really nice blackbirds?

Dear Word Detective: Although I’ve taken six or seven courses in English and in linguistics and have searched the net rather diligently, I can’t find, nor can I even imagine, how “pie” got tacked on to “sweetie.” Any ideas? — Bill Burke.

A few. Ultimately, of course, everything seems to come down to food. They say that love conquers all, but even the most ardent ardor has never been shown to vanquish the need for pizza. And while young lovers often assert that they can “live on love alone,” the only time I’ve ever seen that vow actually put into practice was in the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan, and we all know how well that turned out. (Spoiler alert: I vividly remember sitting in the theater as the credits rolled and hearing some doofus behind me ask, “But why did he shoot her twice?”)

The quest for “sweetie pie” begins with the word “pie,” and a very odd little word it is. In the sense we use it today, a pastry crust or shell containing either meat and vegetables or fruit or custard of some kind, it first appeared in English at the dawn of the 14th century. Strictly speaking, the origin of “pie” is unknown, but most authorities consider it likely that it was based on another, very different sort of “pie” which had appeared in English in the mid-13th century. This was “pie” (from the Latin “pica”) as the name of the bird we now call the magpie, a very intelligent critter with multicolored plumage and a fondness for filling its nest with odds and ends collected on its daily journeys. (The “mag” of “magpie” comes from the proper name Margaret, and follows the fashion at the time of nicknaming animals, e.g., Tom Turkey, Jenny Wren). Long story short, the jumble of vegetables and meats that made up a typical cook’s “pie” at the time apparently reminded folks of the eclectic assortment of objects found in the nest of the flying kind of “pie.” The dramatic plumage of the avian “pie” also gave us the adjective “pied,” meaning “multicolored,” probably best known through the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

“Pie” as food went on to develop a wide range of extended figurative uses, from meaning “collective wealth” (as in “get yourself a piece of the pie”) to personal business or affairs (e.g., “to have a finger in every pie,” to be involved in many things). One of the most enduring and popular uses of “pie” as a metaphor springs from the fact that most people really like pie. Thus “pie,” since the early 19th century, has been used as an example of something pleasurable, simple or easy to do (“easy as pie”) or a pleasant, relaxing situation (“So he took him to his own house, and dressed him up clean and nice, ? and was just old pie to him, so to speak,” Huckleberry Finn, Twain 1884).

By the middle of the 19th century in the US, “pie” had become the point of metaphorical comparison for personal niceness (“For nearly a week afterwards, the domestics observed significantly to each other, that Miss Isabella was as ‘nice as pie!'” 1855), civility (“You’re always as polite as pie to them,” Huckleberry Finn, 1884), and even self-abnegation (“I ran into him upstreet this afternoon and he was meek as pie,” Eugene O’Neill, 1933).

Not surprisingly, “sweet as pie” was a popular accolade applied during the same period to someone whose demeanor was kind and accommodating. “Sweet as pie” was a sort of low-level pun, of course, since dessert pies are usually sweet and “sweetness” has long been associated with kindness, attractiveness and a “lovable” personality. Use of the adjective “sweet” in the sense of “beloved, dear, treasured” dates back to Old English, but it wasn’t until the late 18th century that “sweetie” first appeared as a noun meaning “beloved person” as well as a form of affectionate address (“Hi, sweetie, I’m home!”). And it wasn’t until 1928 that someone (in this case the immortal P.G.Wodehouse) got around to documenting the inevitable combination of “sweet as pie” and “sweetie” into “sweetie-pie” (“‘Hello, sweetie-pie,’ said Miss Molloy,” Money for Nothing).

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