On his "Freakonomics" blog on the New York Times website, Stephen J. Dubner has just learned the perils of the Bierce/Hartman/McKean/Skitt Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation (corrections of linguistic error are themselves prone to error). In a July 8th post entitled "Dept. of Oops," he notes this lead sentence in a recent article in The Economist:
In the hills north east of Mexico City it is not uncommon to find Cornish pasties for sale.
They meant to write "pastries" but, considering that miners work really hard, they might also be hoping to encounter the kind of people who go shopping for pasties.
As dozens of commenters on the blog were quick to point out, this is no error. "Cornish pasties" (plural of "Cornish pasty") are a well-known savo(u)ry treat similar to a turnover. Dubner posted a correction to his correction, but then added:
In (very slight) defense of my "pasties" error, consider the sentence that followed the "Cornish pasties for sale" sentence in the Economist article: "At least the pastry shells originated in Cornwall, but the fillings — such as chocolate-flavoured chicken mole — are distinctly Mexican." It seems strange that "pastry" would become "pasties," but I guess no more strange than "Margaret" becoming "Peggy."
At this point Dubner might want to leave well enough alone on the whole "past(r)ies" issue. Pastry didn't "become" pasty, though the two are etymologically related. Both words come from Anglo-Norman paste meaning "paste, dough," derived in turn from Old French, back to Latin pasta, from Greek pastos "barley porridge" (literally "sprinkled"). In Middle English, paste developed on the one hand into pasty and on the other hand into pastry. On both sides of the Atlantic, pastry now refers either to dough or baked sweet food made with the dough, while pasty, in British usage at least, refers to a small pastry case with a savory filling.
For an American like Dubner unfamiliar with British pasty, the plural form pasties can easily be misconstrued as a plural of pastie, quite another thing entirely. The OED defines it as: "A decorative adhesive covering for a woman's nipple, worn by a stripper. Usu. in pl." The earliest known use is from the mid-1950s, in the lurid American magazine True Police Cases. That would indeed be an embarrassing slip-up for The Economist, but instead it's Dubner who ends up looking a tad foolish. Dept. of Oops indeed.
[If Dubner had encountered this report on British television or radio, he would have heard that pasties as the plural of pasty is pronounced ['pæstiz], so he wouldn't have confused it with the plural of pastie, pronounced ['peɪstiz]. A good pronunciation tip for the next time you're in Cornwall, or Mexico City for that matter.]
[Late update, 7/15: Dubner reports on his blog that The Economist was kind enough to send him a pasty in the mail to make sure he's never confused by the term again.]