A Piece of Cake.

A Lingua Franca post by Ben Yagoda takes off from a 1965 remark by Robert Manry, a copy editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “I told myself that if most of the days ahead were as pleasant as this, our trip would be a breeze, or, as the English say, a piece of cake.” Yagoda, like me, was surprised by the attribution to the English, and investigated, finding that it began as RAF slang, the first quote in the Google Books database coming from a 1942 Life magazine article written by an RAF pilot: “It sounds incredible considering that we were 150 miles from the target but the fires were so great that it was a piece of cake to find the target area.” He has an Ngram chart showing US usage overtaking UK in the 1970s, and ends with this anecdote:

There’s a coda to the tale of a piece of cake. Fans of Roald Dahl may recognize it as the title of one of his short stories, included in his 1946 collection Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying. That story is actually an extensive reworking of his first published work, an article in the August 1942 edition of The Saturday Evening Post called “Shot Down Over Libya.” In the piece, labeled a “factual report,” Dahl talks about being given the assignment, in 1940, to bomb a group of Italian trucks in the Libyan desert. One of his fellow flyers remarks, “Hell’s bells, what a piece of cake!” Another agrees, “What a piece of cake.” (This is retroactive evidence of an earlier British use of the expression than given in the OED, but can’t be included in the dictionary as such since the publication date is 1942.)

Do my UK readers now think of this as an Americanism, or does it still retain a whiff of its raffish RAF origins?


  1. Does it ultimately come from cakewalk?

  2. Sir JCass says

    Always sounded English to me, although I assumed it was much older.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    Never thought of it as American; I think I would in fact actually have guessed it was RAF slang, possibly by association with old war movies.

  4. Does “easy as pie” share a related origin?

  5. Seems I’ve always known it (ex-pat Canadian). I never thought about its origin. My 1981 Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable lists it without attribution.

  6. Narmitaj says

    As a Brit I always assumed “a piece of cake” was thoroughly British and it doesn’t sound at all American to me.

    I’m also the son of a WW2 RAF pilot, as it happens, but that doesn’t really help. I can’t at the moment remember him saying “a piece of cake” in this context, though of course he may well have done. Before I was born, for instance.

  7. Bathrobe says

    It never struck me as either British or American. Just English. But of course, I always used to think “Bob’s your uncle” was like that, too, until I found that Americans don’t use it.

  8. I think the updated British version is “a piece of piss”.

  9. I like “a piece of piss” — very euphonious!

  10. I too have always known it as British, specifically RAF, probably like Narmitaj, because of (’50s) British war movies, and maybe the War in the Air film series made from film shot at the time by the RAF, which was part of our indoctrination in the RCAF. When I read the 1983 novel of that name (see wiki) in the 90s it was already familiar to me. I see by wiki that the BBC made a TV series from the novel.

    Also, it has never occurred to me that it might be an American expression.

  11. In other words, it seems to have had its origin in RAF Fighter Command airfields during the Battle of Britain.

  12. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    It has never struck me as an Americanism.

  13. ‘A piece of cake’ is also very familiar to me as an Australian English speaker. I assumed it was a British expression and I am very surprised to see that it is thought to date from as late as WW2. I did not know it was common in AmE either.

    Re ‘cakewalk’: I have always thought it meant ‘easy’, ‘a pushover’ in the same way as ‘piece of cake’ since the only place I have ever heard it is in the lyrics of ‘Good Old Collingwood Forever’, the song of the Collingwood Football (Australian Rules) Club which includes the line ‘Oh the premiership’s a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood’. I only learnt the ‘true’ (prescriptivist?) definition from looking it up in my copy of the American Heritage Dictionary just now (“1. Formerly a promenade or walk in which those performing the most complex and unusual steps won cakes as prizes’)

  14. Paul (other Paul) says

    I agree with iching’s first paragraph in all respects. Another expression I thought was of RAF WWII origin is “a milk run” for a bombing mission over a target known to be lightly defended and not too deep in enemy territory, but I find it is thought to be American, of unknown origin but long pre WWII and possibly from railroading or even stagecoach days.

  15. GeorgeW says

    I always thought “milk run” was based on frequent stops vs point A to point B.

  16. Sir JCass says

    There was always a glossary of RAF slang in the “Biggles” books by Captain W.E. Johns. I’ve found a compilation here, although there’s no “piece of cake” and no “Gone for a Burton” (my favourite).

  17. I always thought “milk run” was based on frequent stops vs point A to point B.

    That’s my take too. A milk run would be a train that stops at all possible stations, as opposed to an express train that stops at only a few.

    See here.

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    “Milk run” features often in “Catch 22” IIRC.

  19. Not familiar with ‘cakewalk’; thought it was a dance.

    Further speculation on ‘piece of cake’ (or is it a wisp of memory from a novel or film?):

    It probably originated in the statement ‘easy as eating a piece of cake’, and the cakes possibly occurred at tea with the schoolmaster or vicar.

  20. Trond Engen says

    In Norwegian mjølkeruta “the milk route” is used for trains stopping at every station, for planes stopping at smaller airports along the coast, and also for buses driving off the main road. I thought this was a truly homegrown expression, stemming from when rural buses were picking up milk cans from mjølkeramper along the road. I remember this from my boyhood summers in northern Norway in the early seventies, before my uncle got a modern tank installed and the dairy’s tank truck started to come by. I can’t say now if it was exception or rule, though.

  21. As a British English user, this expression seems so British that the idea of any American use is incongruous, and I always loosely associated it with something sweet and pleasant, thus easy to do.

  22. Trond Engen says

    And, thinking of it, maybe more importantly: Boats serving roadless farms along the fjords on a near-daily basis, picking up milk cans and passengers. Milk transport, both at land and at sea, was important in bringing passengers to and from the smallest places. But it took its time.

  23. Cuconnacht says

    “Piece of cake” is used a few times by RAF POWs in the factually-based 1949 novel The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams.

    My 50-year-old memory was that it was one of the bits of RAF slang that one prisoner used to translate into pidgin German (Stück Torte?) along with “Gute zeigen” = “good show” and “Blond genug” = “fair enough”. But a look at google books proves me wrong.

  24. Cuconnacht says

    A late friend of mine whose mother ran a pub in Blickling, Norfolk, during the war, when the US Eighth Air Force had turned much of the surrounding area into runways, told me that groups of US airmen used to celebrate milk runs in the pub. He said the term referred to a mission from which everyone had returned.

  25. narrowmargin says

    I’d always understood “milk run” as “safe”, “nothing to get excited about”, “a no-sweat operation”, “ordinary”, “run of the mill”.

    Nothing in it ever conveyed a sense of “making stops”, either local or express. In other words, it always meant the “quality” of the thing.

  26. In 1943, Squadron-Leader C. H. Ward-Jackson wrote the pamphlet It’s a Piece of Cake Or RAF Slang Made Easy (among other books). US air forces first arrived in England in July of 1942. Make of that what you will. (Me, I’ve always taken it as a Britishism.)

  27. I associate “milk run” with British English, likely The first time I heard it was in the Doctor Who story “Nightmare in Eden” and because it has never seemed common in contemporary American English. In the “Nightmare in Eden,” the primary meaning of the phrase was definitely “easy,” and the route in question did not involve a large number of stops.

    I was also interested to see that a “cakewalk” was originally a test of skill, rather than random. I must confess that I dislike the cakewalks that sometimes occur at American school carnivals. The format there is that people walk around a circuit of some sort, and the person standing in the right place at a random time (when the music stops, or there’s an announcement) wins a cake—although giving away whole cakes now seems uncommon.

  28. As an American, I would never have guessed the expression has a British origin. Cakes to me are American, pies and puddings are British.

  29. GeorgeW says

    “pies and puddings are British.”

    I would agree with puddings, but pies? They are as American as . . . umm . . . apple pie. Well, at least fruit pies. I do associate meat pies with England.

  30. Cakes to me are American, pies and puddings are British.

    What about the poor butter tart?

  31. As American as pizza pie.

  32. J.W. Brewer says

    I think the simile “like a schoolboy loves his pie” is much older than the current approximately synonymous “like a fat kid loves cake,” but both seem equally American. (The “schoolboy/pie” simile as a blues/R&B lyric goes back beyond “River Deep Mountain High” all the way to W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” first published 1914, and I wouldn’t assume was original to him.)

  33. In the OED, the earliest (1909) example of milk run (= milk round, a fixed collection/delivery route in the dairy business, a phrase older by several decades, hence any routine trip) is from Australia, of all places. For the figurative meaning, they have this:

    (c) spec. (U.S.A.F. slang), a safe or uneventful mission; a flight completed without risk or incident.

    (Example: It was General Doolittle who organised the ‘milk-run’ Fortress raids on the ports of Tunis and Bizerta. 1944.)

  34. So both ‘piece of cake’ and ‘milk run’ could have been said in that war when a squadron of airmen in either uniform returned safely from a raid.

    Butter tarts? Disgusting crap to this Canuck — and don’t get me started on Nanaimo bars!

  35. They are as American as . . . umm . . . apple pie. Well, at least fruit pies.

    Just my very subjective feeling. I’m not a big fan of apple pie, and my family has always been a cake family. And what is more American than cupcakes? Or the Cheesecake factory? I really don’t associate cake wih Britain at all, I don’t recall ever eating cake on any of my trips to the UK. Russia is very much a land of cakes however.

    I guess another question would be, when you think of “cake walk”, do you associate it with an icingless British style sponge cake or a buttercream frosting covered American style layer cake? Or an oatcake? Or something else entirely?

  36. My understanding is that in England cake (or “cakes”) is a generic term for some (but not all) types of sweet baked things. That’s how my English coworker uses it at least.

    In the US, cake is more specific.

  37. J. W. Brewer says

    I will fwiw agree with Vanya at least to the extent of saying nothing about “piece of cake” seems sufficiently un-American that I would have affirmatively supposed a non-AmEng origin and if you’d told me that it was one of those AmEng idioms that was incomprehensible to Brits I would have accepted such a claim at face value.

  38. bruessel says

    “I really don’t associate cake wih Britain at all, I don’t recall ever eating cake on any of my trips to the UK.”
    Christmas cake? Fruit cake?

  39. To me, piece of cake is perfectly ordinary, not marked in any way, a natural part of my idiolect.

  40. Nanaimo bars

    Invented by a now extremely wealthy dentist.

  41. GeorgeW says

    No discussion of cake and pie would be complete with noting the number 5 song of the century (according to Wikipedia): “American Pie”

    “So, bye bye Miss American Pie, Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry . . .”

  42. Sir JCass says

    “I really don’t associate cake with Britain at all”

    What? Alfred the Great was burning cakes almost a thousand years before the Boston Tea Party.

  43. Bathrobe says

    For me, “milk run” means the milkman’s early-morning delivery service, delivering bottles from door-to-door (now largely a thing of the past in Australia). For some reason I therefore assumed that a milk run would be in the morning. In fact, I have an old English-Japanese dictionary that says (in translation): ‘(Air Force slang) regular bombing [reconnaissance] flights (originally carried out in the early morning in the expectation of safety)’.

    With the demise of the milkman, there is now a whole generation of people for whom the old Herman’s Hermits hit “No Milk Today” possibly draws a blank. I’m pleased to say, however, that in China the practice of delivering milk daily has recently caught on and appears to be quite popular. Where I am the milkman comes at about 1:00 p.m. in winter and 4:00 p.m. in summer (to prevent the milk from going off).

  44. Bathrobe says

    Come to think of it, ‘milk run’ could also refer to the milk-factory service of coming around to pick up the milk churns from a dairy farm.

  45. Bertie Wooster took the milk train one day. I think that this meant getting up very early. He was on an urgent mission. I think it was the time he went to the house of Madeline Bassett’s old school chum in Wimbledon, determined to do waht he could to heal the rift between Madeline and Gussie.

    “Piece of cake” always felt like an American idiom to me until now. If I let it suggest a literal piece of cake, I see a layer cake with frosting. And now I wonder whether a British person would visualize something simpler, of another shape, un-iced. I recall that, at an academic conference in Scotland that fell on our daughter’s second birthday, when my wife asked the cook about a birthday cake things did not become clear until he figured out that what we wanted was what he called a gateau (stress on first syllable).

  46. marie-lucie says

    bruessel: Christmas cake? Fruit cake?

    Fruit cake is what I was thinking about. I have encountered honeycakes and fairy cakes in British novels but don’t know what those are. There must be wedding cakes in Britain too. And rice cakes, which are not sweet.

    In my experience, at Christmas it is traditional to eat Christmas pudding rather than Christmas cake.

    In France the British fruit cake is generally known as simply cake (pronounced as an approximation of the English word), and sometimes gâteau aux fruits. With the internationalization of commerce in Europe, bringing foreign foodstuffs everywhere, I have seen packages from Britain labelled as cake aux fruits which would literally mean ‘English fruitcake with fruit’.

  47. Ø, that reminds me of Sen. Tom Cotton saying he eats birthday cake every day, which I thought would spark some articles about the definition of “birthday cake”. No one seems to have asked him whether he requires “Happy Birthday, [name]!” iced on top, or candles, or singing.

  48. Bathrobe says

    So where does ‘nuttier than a fruitcake’ come from?

  49. GeorgeW says

    “So where does ‘nuttier than a fruitcake’ come from?”

    I have assumed that it meant that the person had more nuts (crazier) than in a fruit cake, which would include nuts as well as fruit.

  50. I suppose I would have guessed “piece of cake” was American. My knowledge of RAF slang is nil. In BrE, something “takes the biscuit” where in AmE it “takes the cake”.

    “Pudding” has a deeper US-UK semantic divide than “cake”.

    I see “gateau” on restaurant menus beside “torte”. I don’t use either word, but then I’m not a gastronome. “Cake” has been imported to French for an English-style fruitcake.

  51. Breffni says


    In my experience, at Christmas it is traditional to eat Christmas pudding rather than Christmas cake

    Christmas pudding and Christmas cake, in my family anyway. Though in practice, no-one can manage the cake after the pudding. But it keeps, indefinitely as far as I can tell: I’ve eaten Christmas cake at Easter.

  52. @mollymooly: Yes, “pudding” does seem to be the most divergent. I think “pie” has roughly the same same range of meanings in both countries, but the default position is different: an American’s first thought will be of a sweet pie, whereas a Brit’s first thought (unless I’m mistaken) will be of a savory one.

    @Breffni: Don’t forget the Japanese slang meaning. “In Japan, women had traditionally been expected to marry at a young age and those who were unmarried after the age of 25 were sometimes scornfully referred to as Christmas cakes (unsold after the 25th). The term first became popular during the 1980s but has since become passé because Japanese women today often remain unmarried without stigmatization.”

  53. “I’ve eaten Christmas cake at Easter.”

    Traditionally, the top tier of a wedding cake was taken away uncut for use as the firstborn’s Christening cake, which (in those days) implied keeping for at least nine months. A standard Christmas cake is more-or-less identical to one tier of a standard wedding cake, except for size and plastic ornaments. Of course, a cake keeps worse once cut.

  54. fisheyed says
  55. I have encountered honeycakes and fairy cakes in British novels but don’t know what those are.

    As far as I can tell, honeycakes are merely cakes flavored with honey, either before or after baking. Fairy cakes = cupcakes.

  56. Thanks JC. I wonder if honeycake is what is called in France pain d’épice, a sweet, brown loaf, often with a thin layer of jam or honey in the middle. It is cut in slices as needed, like a traditional loaf of bread or a fruit cake.

  57. I just remember that there is a French expression, c’est du gâteau which means about the same as [it’s] a piece of cake. But it might be old-fashioned now. It is unlikely to have originated in English.

  58. David Marjanović says

    what is called in France pain d’épice

    That’s halfway to gingerbread, I think.

  59. David, I think you are right. My mistake! Gingerbread it is. I was sidetracked by “honey” since some pains d’épice have honey in them. But I am no closer to knowing what “honeycake” is.

  60. Some are baked with honey instead of sugar, others have honey drizzled or poured on them after cooking, is what I meant.

  61. Honeycake was a staple of my grandmother’s kitchen. I still enjoy it.

  62. Danish honningkage is a soft Lebkuchen, ideally with a thin layer of apricot jam in the middle and chocolate glazing. Much like m-l’s pain d’epice.

    Lebkuchen starts with honey or treacle, with flour added later. Honey cake is the soft variety that has eggs beat into the sugar before flour is added, using trapped air instead of a raising agent — in other words, a sponge cake with honey and spices. (The crisp, flat variety with no eggs is either brunkager or peberkager in Danish, depending on the spice mix used, and usually based on treacle).

    Brunkager used to be my mother’s Christmas nightmare. Too little flour, and the dough is too sticky to cut, too much, and it crumbles — and you have to let it rest overnight before you can tell if it’s right, and you can’t adjust it anyway. Then the rolls of dough have to be cooled for cutting — too cold and the slices break, too warm and they don’t get the right shape. But when it worked, those were the best cookies ever.

    (My mother is still alive, I’m actually on the train going to visit her over Christmas — but she has wisely decided that Christmas baking is now somebody else’s problem).

    Here in Sweden they just buy ready-made pepparkaksdeg in the store. I don’t really know what to think about that.

  63. Trond Engen says

    Brunkaker was unknown to me, so Norwegian terminology is apparently a little different. So are the recipes, with brown or yellow syrup rather than honey. Our two varieties are pepperkaker and sieupssnipper. I remember my father saying that the difference between them is that pepperkaker don’t have pepper, but in my production sirupssnipper are sweeter and less spicy than pepperkaker,

    I’ll probably make the dough for this yearr’s batch of pepperkaker tomorrow. I second your mother’s observation on the sensitivity to flour. A further complication is that the dough is left in a cool place overnight, and when you take it back into the kitchen it gradually softens, being mainly butter and syrup.

  64. The Polish variety of gingerbread (also baked at Christmas) is called piernik. Like pepperkaker, pierniki contain pepper only in their etymology (they are made with the usual gingerbread ingredients: honey, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, etc.). When bakers started making them in Poland the word pieprz (from Lat. piper, unsurprisingly), had two unstable weak vowels (Slavic yers), so it was declined like this: nom.sg. pieprz, gen.sg. ppierzu. By the end of the Middle Ages, the root vocalism became immobilised and we now say pieprzu on the analogy of the nominative singular, but the isolated derivative ppiernik ‘pepper cake’ has preserved the alternate vowel pattern (the related adjective (p)pierny ‘peppery, spicy’ was analogically replaced by pieprzny a long time ago). After the simplification of the initial geminate and the simplification of the ‘pepper’ paradigm, the etymology was rendered totally obscure to the native speakers of Polish. I was quite surprised when I realised where piernik came from.

  65. How I love that sort of thing! Long live reduced vowels and obscure alternations!

  66. David Marjanović says

    Here in Sweden they just buy ready-made pepparkaksdeg in the store. I don’t really know what to think about that.

    The market must be the same losers who put eggs in their Vanillekipferl dough. Fie on them all.

    (Prettier picture in the German version.)

    The word Pfefferkuchen is known, but appears to have been completely replaced by Lebkuchen, which is of unclear etymology (according to the Pffft! of All Knowledge).

  67. Trond Engen says

    Huh? I read leb- as leib, cognate of “loaf”, indicating a spongy cake or sweet bread rather than a cookie type cake from unrised buttery dough.

  68. marie-lucie says

    Lars: Danish honningkage is a soft Lebkuchen, ideally with a thin layer of apricot jam in the middle and chocolate glazing. Much like m-l’s pain d’epice.

    Yes, except that I have never heard of chocolate (or any glazing) on pain d’épice. I feel that the taste of chocolate would be incompatible with that of the rest of the “spicy” ingredients.

    Most of the commenters talk about homemade cakes of roughly the same description, but in France I have never heard of anyone making pain d’épice at home, or even in neighbourhood bakeries. I have only encountered it packaged in grocery stores. The brands available are of varied quality and price. It is an everyday kind of snack food, that children might eat when coming from school, for instance. It is not associated with any particular event or time of year.

  69. Huh? I read leb- as leib, cognate of “loaf”, indicating a spongy cake or sweet bread rather than a cookie type cake from unrised buttery dough.

    Mackensen (Stuttgart 1966, my copy of which seems to break into more pieces every time I use it):

    Lebkuchen m. mhd lebekuoche, vermutl. zu Laib, dann = brotartiger Kuchen ?

  70. My mother distributed twelve varieties of cookies as Christmas presents. Ten she baked herself, and they all had American English names and were from published recipes, but the Pfeffernüsse (for day 11) and the Lebkuchen (for day 12) she bought from a local German bakery on December 24. In practice, most of them were given out before Christmas to non-nuclear family and to friends, and they no doubt ate them when and as they liked. Me, I never met a Marianne Cowan Christmas cookie I didn’t like, on any day before or after Christmas. Eheu fugaces.

  71. For Christmas and New Year’s my mother likes to get petits fours, pronounced [ˈpʰɛɾi ˌfɔɹz]. Owing to our British connections we also do Christmas crackers (n.b. not a kind of cracker).

  72. My wife is even now engaged in massive Christmas baking: florentines, gingersnaps, sugar cookies, something that I think is supposed to be “Vienna crescents” but which is not crescent-shaped and which we call more punchily “nutballs”… ah, it’s a good time of year for the taste buds, if not for the waistline.

  73. Trond Engen says

    J.C.: My mother distributed twelve varieties of cookies as Christmas presents. Ten she baked herself,

    Norwegian tradition says sju slag “seven sorts” for Christmas. I bake four, three of them traditional in my family but none from family recipes.

  74. @m-l, here is the mass market version of the Danish honey cake. (So-called, there’s all of 1 percent honey in it). Spices are cinnamon and cloves only, the dominant taste apart from cheap cocoa is actually from the apricot in the filling.

    (Better versions exist, but they use a secret spice mix).

    Anyway, the traditional German Lebkuchen hearts for Christmas have a ‘chocolate’ coating as well (but are not as soft and spongy as the above).

    The crisp types, on the other hand, are much heavier on ginger / allspice / mace and wouldn’t combine easily with chocolate, real or fake.

    (Though people seem to be putting the weirdest things in chocolate, after liquorice and salt I’m expecting raw fish any month now).

  75. I always wondered how the English dared to put explosive devices in the hands of children, and then I found out that they share a the mechanism (more or less) of cap pistols.

  76. Chocolate sashimi in Thailand, 200 baht (= US$5) a pop.

  77. marie-lucie says

    Thanks Lars! In my experience, pain d’épice only comes in loaves, never in individual bouchées like petits fours.

    chocolate with flavours

    Some of these are very good. Salt chocolate is surprisingly good!

  78. Long live reduced vowels and obscure alternations!

    On the outskirts of Poznań there is a semi-rural little town called Kiekrz. It is located on the edge of a picturesque lake called Kierskie. When I first saw these names, I immediately knew (having already learnt my pepper and gingerbread lesson) how they were related. It was a piece of cake: Kiekrz < *Kъkъrь like pieprz < *pьpьrь, so the original form of the nom.sg. must have been *Kkierz (the vowel pattern as in Lake *Kkierskie and the surname Kierski, common in the area). The modern form is delocatival (from w Kiekrzu). Indeed, it turns out that the oldest recorded form of the town’s name is Kerz (14th c.).

    By the way, the Russian word for ‘pepper’, перец comes from the diminutive pьpьrьcь (a strong candidate for a Guinness world record as “the nominative singular with the largest number consecutive syllables containing yers”), so it should really be “пепрец“. The modern form has been reformed on the analogy of the oblique cases — the opposite of the Polish development.

  79. Your argument is very convincing, but what on earth is Kikiru? It sounds like a rooster’s crow.

  80. Wrong yer values. It should be Kŭkŭrĭ (which looks even more like Polish representation of a cock’s crow, kukuryku). I haven’t investigated the etymology at any depth, but it looks like an archaic version of the Polish word for ‘bush’ or ‘shrubbery, thicket’ (Modern Polish krzak, krzew, older kierz, gen. krza). It makes more sense as a placename.

  81. So krza would have been kiekrza? Wow.

  82. Trond Engen says

    Is the Polish word borrowed from Germanic? No kjerr n. “thicket” < ON kjarr < PN ‘kerRu- < PG *kerzó:- (n.coll.) (with Verner *z). This is from a Germanic verb for “twist, turn” (Bjorvand & Lindeman). But I don’t know what to make of the double . Intensive/collective reduplication?

  83. David Marjanović says

    Lebkuchen m. mhd lebekuoche, vermutl. zu Laib, dann = brotartiger Kuchen ?

    That’s one of the options presented on de.wikipedia; the other is Latin libum, “loaf of flatbread”.

    The /eː/ might fit a (not too early) Romance loan; if the word is related to Laib instead, the /eː/ but not the /b/ would have to be borrowed from Low German…

  84. So krza would have been kiekrza? Wow.

    I think so, though as I said I haven’t given it much thought. It looks like a typical case of paradigm duplication followed by divergence (like E shade : shadow, Lat. deus : divus). An original (k)kierz/kiekrza split into kiekrz/kiekrza (with an innovated nom.sg., like the Russian ‘pepper’ word), preserved as a placename, and kierz/krza (reducing the oblique stem by dropping the syllable that had no counterpart in the nominative).

    Something similar happened in the Polish word for ‘rain’, deszcz, which today has a fully regularised paradigm, with invariant deszcz- + case endings, e.g. nom.pl. deszcze. The word is related to Russian dóžď (also regularised: pl. doždí). Both come from PSl. *dъzdjь (probably from PIE *dus-dju- ‘bad day’, or possibly ‘ill-disposed Sky-God’, as some would have it). Polish, like many other Slavic languages, typoically preserves mobile yers in monosyllabic roots, so one would expect nom.sg. deżdż, pl. dżdże (with the first a secondary affricate resulting from the fusion of two consonants). This was indeed the state of affairs in Old Polish. The modern spelling of deszcz shows the result of final devoicing (regular in Polish, but usually not reflected in orthography). Because of the double affricate in the oblique stem, Since deszcz and dżdże are hard to connect, so deszcz has been supplied with new case forms based directly on the nom./acc. singular. The plural dżdże, gen.sg. dżdżu, etc. have survived and coexist with deszcze, deszczu as their bookish, somewhat archaic synonyms. Buit the paradigm is defective: there is no nominative singular! That’s because people can’t decide where to place the missing mobile /e/. The only possibility seems to be *dżedż, which sounds absurd. It wouldn’t occur to anyone that its historical locus was inside a modern phoneme. My students can’t believe their eyes when I show them that the missing nominative is the familiar word deszcz.

  85. Wrong yer values.

    My values are right, it’s my fingers that were wrong.

  86. Is the Polish word borrowed from Germanic?

    I have no idea. Trubachev’s and Derksen’s Slavic etymological dictionaries cite cognates from all West Slavic languages plus Old and dialectal Russian. The “reduplication” syllable (if that’s what it is) doesn’t appear there, but this may be the artefact of limited evidence (if the paradigm was levelled out early). There are putative (but by no means certain) cognates in Slavic (*koren- ‘root’) and Baltic (Lith. kìrna ‘exposed tangled roots’). Old Prussian kirno ‘bush’ may be a West Slavic loan (OPol. ki(e)rzno). On the whole, the northerly distribution of the word in Slavic and its strange structure do suggest borrowing.

  87. Roosters’s cries like that are pretty much universal in Europe, being even found in Basque and Georgian, with the exception of the absurd English cock-a-doodle-do, which mysteriously appears in a 17C nursery rhyme and is apparently only later connected with the cock’s cry (Irish has borrowed it). In some languages kukuriku is fronted to kikeriki, like German and Italian.

  88. Or “Coo-coo-ca-cha!”, or “A-coodle-doodle-do!”, or “Cooka-cooka-cooka-kaw!”, or “Cha-chee-cha-chee-cha-chee-cha!”, if you’re part of the Bluth family.

  89. Wrong yer values.

    My values are right, it’s my fingers that were wrong.

    Took me a moment, but I chuckled.

  90. David Marjanović says

    probably from PIE *dus-dju- ‘bad day’, or possibly ‘ill-disposed Sky-God’, as some would have it

    Only dystheists believe in rain? 🙂

    Anyway, I was quite surprised by the ease with which you talk about “rain” having a plural. That wouldn’t have occurred to me, despite the abundance of poetic waters on the ground in plenty of languages – perhaps because the missing plural of Regen would have to be *Regen again, but there are other sg/pl homonyms out there.

  91. In English we speak of the spring/summer/fall/winter rains (depending on climate), meaning the many instances of rain during the season in question.

  92. David,

    In Slavic, ‘rain’ is freely countable, more like English shower (Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote…). I have my doubts about the ‘angry Zeus’ etymology (I suppose farmers pray more frequently for rain than for shine); the mundane antonymic contrast *dus-dju- : h₁su-dju- ‘awful day : fine day’ looks more plausible to me. There are several IE parallels, cf. Gk. εὐδία ‘fair weather’; Skt. dur-dina- ‘rainy day, foul weather’, su-dína- ‘clear (of a day or morning)’, su-dív- ‘shining brightly’, etc.

  93. Interesting article. However, I dont think many Americans use the phrase Piece of Cake anymore!

  94. John Cowan says

    I suppose farmers pray more frequently for rain than for shine

    Well, so they do, but thunderstorms, that thoroughly Jovian attribute, are not usually included in the prayers. The Navajos, living in the Great Southwestern Desert as they do, distinguish between male rain and female rain in the spring, the former being thunderous and drenching, but passes on quickly and mostly runs off the parched soil, whereas the latter is plentiful, gentle, and soaks into the soil. Mythologically both are necessary: Male Rain cleanses the Earth from death, whereas Female Rain brings new life. From a pragmatic viewpoint, female rain is obviously more useful to dryland farmers.

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