The Grammarphobia Blog

Were the Beatles off piste?

Q: An absolutely new one on me: “piste.” It was used by Sir Paul McCartney during a BBC interview cited in The Guardian. Is it a word that’s stayed on that side of the pond, or does it have a track record in the Colonies, too?

A: The Nov. 16, 2008, article in The Guardian quotes Sir Paul on the subject of a 14-minute track called “Carnival of Light,” recorded by the Beatles in 1967 and never released.

McCartney, it turns out, still has a master tape of the improvisatory session, which he plans to share with the world. “I like it because it’s the Beatles free, going off piste,” he says.

I’m glad the interviewer correctly transcribed that sentence!

Sir Paul’s use of the word “piste” is right on track – in the states as well as the mother country.

A “piste,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is (1) a trail, especially one beaten by a horse or mule; (2) a marked-out area for the sport of fencing; and (3) a ski trail of compacted snow.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define it as a ski trial.

There are similar words in French, Italian, and Spanish, all ultimately derived from a post-classical Latin word, pistare, meaning to pound.

In modern English usage, “piste” appears most often in reference to skiing, to fencing, and to tracks (like those in riding rings or well-used trails). Here are some recent examples from the OED:

2002, from Tricolor Over the Sahara: The Desert Battles of the Free French, 1940-1942, by Edward L. Bimberg: “Camel mounted soldiers who also served as escorts for the civilian caravans that regularly transported goods along the desert pistes.”

2002, from By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers and Olympic Champions, by a fencing expert, Richard Cohen: “We had two judges watching us, one on either side of the piste.”

2001, from Ski magazine: “I spent a week skiing Switzerland, on St. Moritz’s extraordinary open pistes of Corviglia and Corvatsch.”

So McCartney meant that the improvisatory session by the Beatles was, to use a similar expression, off the beaten track.

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