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Mind your language

What the OED gets wrong about pelican pie

An ancient joke in need of more careful explanation

27 August 2016

9:00 AM

27 August 2016

9:00 AM

Revisers of OED have made a pig’s ear of pelican pie, I fear. I’ve been reading for pleasure Peter Gilliver’s The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (reviewed last week). I’m up to 1904, when James Murray complains he ‘could have written two books with less labour’ than it took to compile the entries for pelican and penguin.

Pelicans enjoyed life for centuries without the British seeing one. John Trevisa, a sort of 14th-century John Aubrey, wrote in 1398 that there were two kinds: one a water bird, the other loving the wilderness. He got this indirectly from St Jerome’s commentary on Psalm 102: ‘I am become like a pelican in the wilderness’ (as the Prayer Book puts it).


Thanks to the fourth-century bestiary Physiologus, pelicans also famously fed their chicks with blood from their breast. Thomas Aquinas began a stanza of the Adoro te devote with the words ‘Pie pelicane’. In 1940 Frederic Geary, a don at Corpus, Oxford (which has a pelican as its emblem), published a volume of verse in dead tongues with the playful title Pelican Pie.

To illustrate another meaning of pelican (‘shot from an ancient piece of artillery’), the OED quoted Horace Walpole, who in 1754 wrote to Horace Mann: ‘When your relation, General Guise, was marching up to Carthagena, and the pelicans whistled round him, he said, “What would Chloe [the Duke of Newcastle’s cook] give for some of these to make a pelican pie?”’ This complicated joke was meant to show him a little cracked. Walpole had already told the story in a letter to Mann in 1742.

But the OED revision in 2005 reduced the quotation: ‘When the pelicans were flying over his head, he cried out, “What would Chloe give for some of these!”’ This spoils the joke. As the internet has no space constraints, the cut seems senseless. Worse, in a separate entry for pelican pie, which it calls ‘obsolete’ (as if it were once commonly eaten), it uses the 1742 quotation: ‘When the pelicans were flying over his head, he cried out, “What would Chloe give for some of these to make a pelican pie!”’ From that you’d never know they weren’t real pelicans. Perhaps the OED, the best book in the world, will adjust all this.


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