The Grammarphobia Blog

Why piece + meal = piecemeal

Q: Does the word “piecemeal” have anything to do with eating? I know that “piece” is used to describe the equivalent of eating a sandwich over the sink, as in “I’m not eating dinner. I’m just piecing.”

A: “Piecemeal” is an interesting word. Etymologically it means “by piece measure.”

But not many people realize this, since it’s the last remaining example in English of a word formed with the obsolete suffix “-meal,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

And as we’ll explain later, both parts of the word have connections with eating.

In Old and Middle English, the suffix “-meal” (which meant a “measure”) was used to form compound adverbs. Long-dead examples include “fingermeal” and “footmeal,” units of measure about equal to the breadth of a finger or the length of a person’s foot.

Today we might use the phrase “piece by piece” as a synonym for “piecemeal.” As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the adverbial equivalent in modern English for those old “-meal” compounds would be “the formula ‘— by —,’ with repetition of the noun.”

In fact, “footmeal,” which existed only in Old English (as fotmælum), was not just a unit of measure but also meant “step by step” or “bit by bit,” Oxford says.

The compound adverb “piecemeal” was formed in Middle English when the “-meal” suffix was added to the noun “piece” (a part or portion), which had come into English from French about 1230.

The adverb was first recorded in the Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, which was written around 1300: “Folc to drou þat traytour, ech lime pece mele” (“Men drew [dismembered] the traitor, each limb piecemeal”).

In the late 16th century, English writers began using “piecemeal” as an adjective to mean consisting of or done in pieces.

The earliest OED example for the adjective is from Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, a prose romance he was working on when he died in 1586: “He did with a broken peece-meale speach … remember the mishaps of his youth.”

Now for the eating connections. That old “-meal” suffix is related to the word we use to mean a repast.

In Old and Middle English, the noun “meal,” derived from Germanic, meant not only a measure but a time or an occasion. It no longer exists with those general meanings, but survives in a particular sense—an occasion for eating.

The sense of “meal” as an occasion for eating emerged in early Old English. The OED defines the usage as “a customary or social occasion of taking food, esp. at a more or less fixed time of day, as breakfast, dinner, etc.”

The earliest known example is from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s ninth-century translation of a sixth-century work by Pope Gregory:

“Ne fæst se no Gode ac him selfum, se þe ðæt nyle ðearfum sellan ðæt he ðonne on mæle læfð, ac wile hit healdan eft to oðrum mæle, ðæt he eft mæge his wambe gefyllan” (“He fasts not for God but for himself, who will not give the poor what he leaves of his meal, but wishes to keep it for another meal, to fill his belly with it afterwards.”)

Very soon, “meal” was used more widely in Old English to mean the food itself.

Jumping ahead a millennium or so, someone without the time or inclination to eat an actual meal might “piece” instead—that is, nibble casually or eat small pieces of this or that.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged says the verb “piece” is “chiefly dialectal” and means “to eat between meals” or “nibble at snacks.”

M-W gives an example from Eudora Welty’s short story “Why I Live at the P.O.” (1941): “there he was, piecing on the ham.”

As far as we can tell, no other standard dictionaries have entries for this sense of the verb “piece.” Wordnet, an electronic word database, says it means to “eat intermittently” or “take small bites of,” as in “He pieced at the sandwich all morning.”

The usage is more common in books devoted to slang or regionalisms, where it was recorded at least as far back as mid-19th century America.

The earliest example we’ve found is from John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (2nd ed., 1859), where the usage is traced to Pennsylvania:

“TO PIECE. To eat pieces of bread and butter, to eat between meals. ‘He has n’t eaten much dinner, because he’s been a piecin’ on’t all the mornin’.’ Pennsylvania.”

The word is also discussed in a review of Bartlett’s dictionary, entitled “Americanisms,” in the April 1861 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. In commenting on verbs formed from familiar nouns, the review writes: “ ‘To piece,’ is to take an irregular snack between meals.”

The verb is also recorded in Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present (1902), by John S. Farmer and W. E. Henley, which defines “to piece” (or “to eat a piece”) as colloquial American English for “to eat between meals.”

Pat recalls the usage as extremely common in Iowa, where she grew up. It often meant to pick at leftovers, as in “Long after Thanksgiving, they were still piecing on the turkey.”

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