By ANNE DONNELL Since I don’t listen very carefully when television or radio coverage of football is on, I was glad to read your column on the Hail Mary pass last week. I agree that we’ve let our “culture” try to make meaningless many things we thought sacred back when we were truly a God-fearing nation. However, what I want to ask you about is completely different. Two expressions I use (and understand their meaning) I’d like to know the origins of: “eat crow” and “humble pie.” Thanks,
-Talking More than Listening! Two interesting expressions that I could tuck into some football coverage if I were a sports commentator! The combination of these two – “eat crow” and “humble pie” – calls to mind those four and twenty black birds, remember? Baked into a pie. Happily that bunch seems to survive, unlike the suggested fate of the bird in “eat crow.”
“When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing…”
[ATA (According to Anne) – the origins, even the age of the nursery rhyme that begins, “Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye…” are mostly guesswork, although some fifteenth century sources (one Shakespeare in Twelfth Night) seem to refer to the rhyme. Theories abound about the king, the queen, the maid who loses her nose. There is, however, a 1549 Italian cookbook with a recipe for a pie whose filling, live birds, survives the cut, so to speak. Horrid, nasty surprise to us germaphobic and virus fleeing diners of the 21st century. But, never dare to limit the human imagination for the dreadful. I summon Halloween as my witness.]
ONLINE DEPARTMENT (Thanks, J.A.) “And for SEC Fans: HOW MANY SEC STUDENTS DOES IT TAKE TO CHANGE A LIGHT BULB?”• At VANDERBILT: it takes two, one to change the bulb and one more to explain how they did it every bit as well as the bulbs changed at Harvard. • At GEORGIA: it takes two, one to change the bulb and one to phone an engineer at Georgia Tech for instructions. • At FLORIDA: it takes four, one to screw in the bulb and three to figure out how to get stoned off the old one. • At ALABAMA: it takes five, one to change it, three to reminisce about how The Bear would have done it, and one to throw the old bulb at an NCAA investigator. • At OLE MISS: it takes six, one to change it, two to mix the drinks and three to find the perfect J. Crew outfit to wear for the occasion. • At LSU: it takes seven, and each one gets credit for five semester hours. • At KENTUCKY: it takes eight, one to screw it in and seven to discuss how much brighter it seems to shine during basketball season. • At TENNESSEE: it takes ten, two to figure out how to screw it in, two to buy an orange lampshade, and six to phone a radio call-in show and talk about how much they hate Alabama. • At MISSISSIPPI STATE: it takes fifteen, one to screw in the bulb, two to buy the Skoal, and twelve to yell, "GO TO H___, OLE MISS". • At AUBURN: it takes one hundred, one to change it, forty-nine to talk about how they did it better than at Bama, and fifty to get drunk and roll Toomer's Corner when finished. • At SOUTH CAROLINA: it takes 80,000, one to screw it in and 79,999 to discuss how this finally will be the year that they have a decent football team. • At ARKANSAS: None. There is no electricity in Arkansas.
Using a Smithsonian Books publication, Ballyhoo Buckaroo and Spuds, by Michael Quinion, a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary, I found “eat crow” is an American phrase. In 1888, the Atlanta Constitution claimed the phrase came from an incident in the War of 1812 where an American was caught behind British lines after shooting a crow. (That does not read, ‘shooting a bird.”) The British officer took the American’s gun, aimed it at him, and suggested he take a bite of crow. The American complied, but when his gun was returned to him, forced the British officer to eat the rest of the crow. Perhaps. The first recorded use of the phrase is in the 1870s, and the phrase was “to eat boiled crow.”
It seems crow is particularly distasteful, though I know of no one who can attest to this from personal experience. There was an old joke that said if you’re lost in the woods without any food, catch a crow and put it in the pot with one of your boots. Boil it for a week, and then eat the boot. Sole food?
Now “humble pie” could well trace back to the medieval practice of feeding the servants and other “lower class” persons a pie made of the innards of the dear: heart, liver, entrails – called “umbles.” I’m skipping the long explanation about the “h” in front of “umble.” But, note that the omission of the “h” in front came, by the nineteenth century, to indicate the speech of an uneducated person. Hence, Charles Dickens in David Copperfield has Uriah Heep, still the model for a decidedly not humble humility, say, “ When I was a young boy…I got to know what umbleness did, and I took to it. I ate umble pie with an appetite.”
[ATA – Charles Dickens (British novelist, 1812-1870) Considered one of the world’s greatest writers, Dickens wrote many famous works including Oliver Twist, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol. The last one alone would guarantee his fame – yet another film version has just come out. Ebenezer Scrooge is known to every school child. (More so than the great mystery raised in the hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” You know, “Now I raise mine Ebenezer.” Dr. Gregory Neal online informs us, “Literally speaking, an Ebenezer is a ‘stone of help,’ or a reminder of God’s Real, Holy Presence and Divine aid. Spiritually and theologically speaking, an Ebenezer can be nearly anything that reminds us of God’s presence and help: the Bible, the Sacramental Elements, a cross, a picture, a fellow believer, a hymn – those things which serve as reminders of God’s love, God’s Real Presence, and God’s assistance are ‘Ebenezers.’”)
[And on the pervasiveness of the elements of A Christmas Carol, Matthew McConaughey did the story without the Christmas motif in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009). Moreover, Tiny Tim, another famous character from A Christmas Carol, became the show business sobriquet of a ukulele playing, curly-headed eccentric named Herbert Khaury who married “Miss Vicki” on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Mercifully long ago and far away. ]
Christmas is only a month and a week away. Well, buy. Bye.