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A peck

One meaning of the word 'peck' is a kiss - which has morphed into phrases such as a peck on the cheek. But I'm not talking about this meaning here. Although I would often give my grandmother a kiss on the cheek, or a big hug and she would respond in the same way. This is her in the centre, with myself and my mother at a family Christmas wearing silly hats and smiling for the camera. I have very, very few pictures of my grandmother, even though she played such a very big role in our lives, and this one, though not very good, is the best I have. At least she is looking at the camera and smiling. Well she smiled a lot. I do not ever remember her being cross.

But why am I rambling on about my grandmother? Well she was a woman of proverbs, and these were passed on to us and apparently my mother (and myself) passed them on to my own children. They mock me slightly for it - in a loving way. One that I have found myself saying frequently is 'You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die' and today, at my book club I quoted it again, although I now quite can't remember why. Probably something to do with the corona virus.

For one of the meanings of this old proverb and the one my grandmother, mother, and I have meant, is that it doesn't pay to be too clean and hygienic. Eating a tiny bit of dirt by mistake is fine - over a lifetime you will probably eat a peck of dirt. Indeed you should. And modern medicine is coming round to this point of view is it not? We have been too hygienic and as a result our children have poor human biomes, and lots of allergies. They even take care these days to smear children born via caesarian section with a little bit of their mother's pooh - for lack of a better word - which a naturally born baby would have picked up on their way into the world. It's a way of kickstarting the immune system and building up that human biome.

So what is a peck? It doesn't sound like much does it? I mean a peck on the cheek is a tiny thing. But a peck is actually a pretty large quantity:

"A peck is an imperial and United States customary unit of dry volume, equivalent to 2 dry gallons or 8 dry quarts or 16 dry pints (9.09 (UK) or 8.81 (US) litres)" Wikipedia

So relax a bit about the food dropped on the floor, picked up and eaten. I mean I wouldn't encourage children to dig into a bowl of dirt, but then again, maybe it wouldn't do them too much harm either.

However, there is also another meaning to this old proverb - that we will all have to negotiate troubled times at some point in our lifetimes. And again the implication is that we need to in order to be able to grow as human beings. Which also makes sense, and maybe somewhere at the back of my mind this was lurking because it wasn't a complete surprise to me. But I don't think it was the meaning that my grandmother, or my mother was attributing to one of their favourite little homilies. Or is a homily something different?

Quick aside - I started to look up the difference, but quickly got into a whole lot of other words - adage, platitude, catchphrase, saying, cliché, so decided not to go any further there, other than to remark upon the richness of the English language. Such subtle shades of meaning between all of those.

And in similar vein if you go to Etymology online's entry for 'peck' you get a whole lot of related words like henpecked, pecker, peckish and peccadillo, which is probably from a different source.

The proverb 'you have to eat a peck of dirt before you die' by the way dates back, they think, to the eighteenth century, but I couldn't find an 'origin story for it, so it is likely that it has existed almost forever.

Anyway I thought that was that for the peck, but as I was checking out what a peck was, I came across that old nursery rhyme about Peter Piper. Of course thought I.

"Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.

A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked.

If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,

Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?"

It's a tongue twister, and was first written down in 1813, but they think it probably dates back to the previous century.

And here's the thing for me. As a child I think I always heard the word pepper rather than peppers. Now is this my memory playing tricks, me mishearing or did people actually say pepper? I used to have the wonderful Raymond Briggs book of nursery rhymes, but at some stage of our moving houses it disappeared, and so I cannot look it up, I did check online, but sure enough all the versions I saw had 'peppers' not 'pepper'. But then most of those sites were American.

So did I just make the mistake because I didn't know what peppers were, that they even existed? We certainly never had peppers in my childhood - well not until high school anyway - and by then I was over nursery rhymes. We had a Swedish lady in charge of the school lunches at my high school and she used to put peppers/capsicum in a whole lot of things. It was a novelty to us schoolgirls and I don't think we really appreciated them. When asked why so many she responded that it was because of their high level of vitamins. Pickled peppers certainly make more sense than pickled pepper, but then my childish mind somehow could imagine pickled pepper.

Which brings me to the origin story of this particular rhyme. Not necessarily true - there are doubters - although it does seem to tick all the boxes. They say that Peter Piper was an 18th century French horticulturalist called Pierre Poivre (Peter Pepper). 'Piper' in latin means pepper of course. This man was a government administrator in the French colony of Mauritius who was investigating the production of various spices in the Seychelles. Well pepper is a spice from there (which supports my interpretation of 'pepper'), but it doesn't quite fit with peppers which, of course, come from the Americas. Anyway it's a nice story.

And last of all there is this much earlier quote - this time from Miguel de Cervantes who lived from 1547-1616:

"It is a true saying that a man must eat a peck of salt with his friend before he knows him." I suppose that means that it takes a long time to really get to know someone. You have to eat a lot of food before you have eaten a peck of salt. I did not know of this quote.

In America apparently you can still buy some things by the peck. I think that these old measures had disappeared by my childhood, though I do remember them all being listed on the back of my maths exercise book, and we did have to do sums with them. Remember, chains and perches and other such exotic things? Dollars, metres and kilograms are a bit boring in contrast aren't they? Don't think I know any proverbs using them. Pennies and pounds yes, dollars and cents - maybe but I'm not so sure.

Do people create new proverbs these days?



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