The Grammarphobia Blog

Piece work

Q: Help! I can’t sleep. Is it “say your piece” or “say your peace”? I would tend to use the latter, but I can’t find confirmation.

A: It’s “say [or speak] your piece,” not “peace.” When the expression first appeared in the early 19th century, the word “piece” referred to a passage for recitation or a short speech, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first published reference in the OED is from A New-England Tale (1822), a work by Catherine M. Sedgwick: “The young woman was to speak a piece of her own framing.”

The expression now, of course, usually means to have one’s say or express one’s opinion. Here’s a recent example from the April 9, 2003, issue of the Washington Times: “He … gives each caller a chance to say his piece before moving on.”

Interestingly, “piece” was sometimes spelled “peace” in the 16th and 17th centuries. A 1523 act issued by Henry VIII, for example, referred to “every peace of Worstede.”

But our two words, “peace” and “piece,” have different ancestries. “Peace” comes from pax, the Latin word for peace, while the ultimate origin of “piece” is uncertain, according to the OED.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins suggests, though, that “piece” is probably descended from the Old Celtic root pett, which may also have given us the word “peat.”

I hope you can have a good night’s sleep now.

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