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Family ties

What is the meaning and origin of ‘to eat humble pie’? (Vijay Bhat, Bhopal)

This expression is frequently heard in informal contexts. When someone is made ‘to eat humble pie’, he/she is forced to admit that he/she is in the wrong about something; he/she accepts defeat. The expression suggests that the person has been embarrassed or humiliated. It has more or less the same meaning as ‘to eat one’s words’ and ‘to eat crow’.

If Vinod’s project fails, his colleagues will take great delight in making him eat humble pie for several months.

After losing in the very first round, I had to eat humble pie.

The word ‘humble’ in this context does not refer to ‘humility’. It comes from the Old English ‘umbles’, and the word was mostly used to refer to the inner organs — liver, heart, kidneys, and so on — of an animal. Rich people seldom ate the flesh from these parts; it was the servants in the household that usually consumed them. They used the minced meat not eaten by their master to make an ‘umble pie’. So, when you ate ‘umble pie’, you were being like the ‘humble’ servant. With the passage of time, ‘umble’ was replaced by ‘humble’.

How is the word ‘nepotism’ pronounced? (S Devika, Nellore)

The first syllable rhymes with the words ‘hep’, ‘pep’ and ‘rep’, and the following vowel sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘china’. The ‘s’ is pronounced like the ‘z’ in ‘zoo’, ‘zip’ and ‘zero’. The word, which comes from the Latin ‘nepos’, meaning ‘nephew’, is pronounced ‘NE-pe-tiz-em’ with the stress on the first syllable. It is mostly used in everyday contexts to show disapproval. Nepotism is favouritism based on kinship; a person uses his position of power to promote or help the members of his own family. Many of our politicians do this all the time.

Like most politicians, the Chief Minister was guilty of nepotism.

How did I get a job in this wonderful company? Nepotism, of course!

Is it okay to say, ‘If you will come first in class...’? (K Janaki, Erode)

No, it is not. We do not usually use ‘will’ in conditional clauses — i.e. clauses beginning with words like ‘if’, ‘when’, and so on. In such cases, we normally use the simple present tense. For example, “If you come first in class, I’ll buy you a bicycle.” What this suggests is that a certain condition has to be fulfilled for the person to get a bicycle in the future — the condition being, coming first in class. Here are a few more examples.

If you lose some weight, you’ll be able to run faster.

If you behave, I’ll let you play with your friends.


Nepotism: We promote family values here almost as often as we promote family members. Larry Kersten

The writer teaches at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2022 12:33:59 pm |