Eating Humble Pie: How Did This Expression Come About?

Posted on 10 Sep 2012 16:20

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Humble Pie Meaning

To eat humble pie is to be humiliated and forced to admit error or wrongdoing. It is similar to having to eat crow and may also refer to a general drop in social status. Although we cannot be sure of the origin of the latter, we have a pretty good idea of the origin of the former. It may surprise you to know that it was not always metaphorical. In fact, it was very literal. What does it literally have to do with? Why, the innards of a deer!

Now, if you were forced to eat the entrails of a deer, that would for sure be humiliating, wouldn't it? Well, it would be today, but there was a time when "waste not, want not" was taken more seriously, and the eating of organ meats or offal was more common than it is today, although it still survives.

Removing the liver, heart, entrails, and other organs from a deer and cooking them to eat used to be a common practice, and these innards were called numbles. Yes, with an N. You read that right. It came from the Old French nombles which came from the Latin lumbulus meaning "a little loin." The word for loin was lumbus. This is also where we the get the word lumbar from. The numbles were eaten as early as the 1400's. The numbles were reserved for the huntsmen and his companions, or for the servants, while the venison itself was served to the more wealthy household he sold the deer to. At least according to some historians. Not everyone of the time seems to have agreed.

The Real Humbe Pie

At some point the N got dropped. The prevalent theory was that people heard someone saying "a numbles" and thought they were saying "an umbles." So the word numble became umble. One way of cooking umbles was to bake them into a pie. An umble pie, that is. It is not farfetched at all. Steak and kidney pie is still around, after all and according to Samuel Pepys, a well-to-do and upwardly mobile city dweller who dined with such notables as Sir William Penn, an umble pie was quite good.1 He said in the July 8, 1863 entry of his diary:

Mrs. Turner came in, and did bring us an umble pie hot out of her oven, extraordinary good.

Numble pie is mentioned in Thomas Love Peacock's Maid Marian and Crochet Castle (Robin Hood). Little John came before a melancholy young man upon a horse and went and told Robin Hood about him, who told his man to fetch the young man back to dine with them where:

Robin helped him largely to numble-pie and cygnet and pheasant, and the other dainties of his table…

Later, Friar Tuck, fretting over the loss of his valise full of treasures and fear for his safety caused him to lose his appetites during a feast:

…of which all the flasks and pasties before him could not give him assurance. The appearance of the knight, however, cheered him up with a semblance of protection and gave him just sufficient courage to demolish a cygnet and a numble-pie, which he diluted with the contents of two flasks of canary sack.

Peacock used the N spelling in 1822 but, curiously, this spelling was already widely out of use, having already been replaced with umble and then humble. According to the Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories, humble pie was recorded from before 1642, but then was not seen for quite a while, with umble pie being common. Humble was then revived at some point, and Webster attributes it to Americans, although this is not substantiated.

Peacock presumably used numble because the spelling was more appropriate to Robin Hood's time. However, Websters claims that the basic timeline has nombles passing into English as numbles by the 1300's, which by the 1400's became umbles, which became humbles by the 1500's. This, even though they claim that umble pie was the more common name for the pie in the 1600's, so don't quote me on that timeline, or I might have to eat crow!

Robin Hood and his men ate their venison and their numbles, and like Pepys they did not think it belittling at all. It was a dainty, in fact. It is hard to be sure that the equating of umble pie to low class was widespread enough to have been responsible for the pun, but it does seem likely that numble or umble pie was for poor folks, and the higher class, of course, ate the actual deer meat; or that it came to be seen that way. So for someone of "higher station" to have to eat umble pie might be seen as belittling and humiliating.

Now, how umble became humble is pretty easy to see. The British have the habit of dropping the letter H from the beginning of words. Umble would sound like "humble" to many English folk. From there it is an easy jump to a clever pun, equating the umble with the completely different word humble meaning modest, not proud, of low rank or status, etc. As the humiliating aspect of "eating umble pie" could be easily recognized, or at least alluded to, and the words umble and humble are so easily identified with one another, eating umble pie at some point became the cliche "to eat humble pie."

The most famous literary reference to humble pie, in the modern sense, is in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, which was first published in 1850. Uriah Deep is speaking of humbleness. Dickens spells it without the H, to show Uriah's pronunciation:

When I was quite a young boy, I got to know what umbleness did, and it took to it. I ate umble pie with an appetite.

If You Have to Eat Crow, Eat it While It's Hot

We know that to "eat crow" is to do much the same thing as to "eat humble pie." But what of the aphorism, "If you have to eat crow, eat it while it's hot?"

That particular statement originated with Allen W. Barkley, vice president for Harry Truman. Barkley meant that when someone makes a blunder (speaking to politicians) that he should quickly admit to the mistake and put the incident behind him. The idea is that the quicker you admit to a mistake, apologize, and show your regret, the less damage will be done and the quicker everyone will forget about it.

Main References
1. The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1991. 229-230.
2. Peacock, Thomas Love. Maid Marian and Crotchet Castle. London: Ward and Lock, 1856. 69. 98.
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