Eating Humble Pie

By Maeve Maddox

The old expression eating humble pie remains alive and well in cyberspace:

From a father who had to cope with his wife’s duties when she was ill:

I am once again reminded of all the little things my wife manages so well and how I really should make a better effort not to take her for granted. Humble pie is definitely a dish I should eat on a regular basis.

From a sports fan:

And then we played Florida at Gainesville today and they beat us by the mercy rule with a score I am not going to report. Oh me. Oh my. Talk about eating humble pie. I am trying to digest it, but it does not taste good.

From the host of a website dedicated to some esoteric subject:

After a lengthy discussion with Peter Kriens and BJ Hargrave, I have to eat some humble pie and admit that I gave incorrect advice about concurrency in my latest OSGi book chapter.

The expression eating humble pie conflates two words:

humble – “not proud or haughty; ranking low in the social or political scale.” The word humble entered English c1250 by way of an Old French word that derived from L. humilis “lowly, humble,” lit. “on the ground,” from humus “earth.”

umbles – the “edible inner parts of an animal,” from Middle English numbles, “offal.” From the 17th century onward, recipes for “umble pie” appeared in cookbooks. Many people, usually the poorer sort, literally did eat umble pie.

During the 17th century scholars began messing with the pronunciation of English words beginning with the letter h. Up until then, the h in French borrowings, like humble, was silent. Initial h was pronounced in words that had been borrowed directly from Latin or Greek. Some scholars promoted the idea that the h should be pronounced in humble and other French borrowings. Not everyone went along with the “improvements.”

The expression to eat humble pie came into the language about 1850 with the sense of:

submission, apology, or retraction especially made under pressure or in humiliating circumstances

It’s a pun. The speaker or speakers with whom the expression originated had to pronounce umble and humble the same way for the pun to work. Eating umble pie was something that an upperclass person would not willingly do, just as a person who’d made an ass of himself would be unwilling to admit it and apologize for it.

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3 Responses to “Eating Humble Pie”

  • Chris O’Brien

    On your last paragraph on “umble pie”–
    it occurs to me, related to your comment about how upper class people woud not willingly eat umble pie. . .is it possible that, further, the same upper class people might take pride in the propriety of their pronunciation and therefore would be loath to drop the H in “humble pie,” furthering the irony of the pun. Top drawer people, speaking out “umble pie,” mindful of the similarity with the word “humble” and its proper sound, might, in their minds, be speaking as if they were lower-class clowns!
    Do you agree?
    Thank you for this wondrous daily missive. I always look forward to it!
    Chris O’Brien
    Dou Liou
    Taiwan, ROC

  • Chris O’Brien

    By the way, I mean “clowns” as Shakespeare uses the word–meaning country bumpkins, not professional showpeople…

  • Maeve

    Chris,
    That’s a very interesting possibility. It would, as you say, increase the irony.

    Thanks

    PS I knew what kind of clowns you meant.

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