Blue jeans, Harley Davidsons, open roads and vintage skyscrapers are all said to be ‘as American as apple pie’ – a phrase that dates at least to the 1930s, meaning all-American. I have to confess I’ve never cared much for apple pie.
Cut open this iconic analogy and you’ll find mostly a lot of nothing. Most people don’t regularly sit down and eat a cliché, even in America, believe it or not.
Here are some words for the pies that some Americans really do eat, though, according to an article in the New York Times this week: cobblers, sonkers, brown Bettys, buckles, brunts, slumps, crumbles and crisps.
It’s poetry, though this is not a vocabulary of pie-ness that many Americans would hold, because most of these words – all essentially meaning ‘a deep-dish pie’ – only get used in one or two very specific parts of the USA.
But these are all deeply American words, all borrowed from somewhere, each linked to heavy cultural things like history, religion, class and race – and lighter things like seasons and flavours.
It’s an example of why America is a veritable wonderland for linguists. And it’s a small example of why American English – whatever that is, and however you try to define it – remains a rich cauldron of linguistic invention and strangeness, much like the country itself.
Obvious caveat: there’s no denying that America has also given us a whole daily lexicon of soul-defeating business terminology. But that’s a different matter. Those aren’t real words. I think most of them were spun out of a computer at IBM.
What I like about these pie words is that they are old, packed with heritage, and yet they haven’t been hollowed out to the point of nostalgia like their common cousin, the proverbial ‘apple pie’. Together, they also stand as a reminder that –despite the up-close view we all get of America now through TV and film (whether we want it or not, often) – there is still a lot that most of us don’t know about America and Americans.
On a more practical level, I don’t know about you but I find it impossible to look at words like ‘sonkers’ and ‘brunts’ without something really quite zesty happening in the way that I use language. Boring business words be damned. Apple pies, too.
Though for the record, before the apple pie was an American icon it was just a food – in England.
These words originally appeared on the blog published by my friends at Wordtree.
Photo: a buttermilk pie, which doesn't have a zingy name but boy is it good.