Of pasties and pastries

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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.

Dubner writes:

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.]


  1. Erin said,

    July 9, 2008 @ 5:03 pm

    I have only anecdotal evidence, but it seems to me that pastry, in U.S. usage at least, is used to refer to nearly any single-serving baked good. That is, it may be savory or sweet, and made from any dough, perhaps in part because pasty is a little-known word here.

  2. ed said,

    July 9, 2008 @ 5:04 pm

    If Dubner came from Wisconsin he would have known about pasties too. I grew up (in Pennsylvania) eating pasties from a Scandinavian-American family recipe that had been picked up from Welsh miners my Finnish relatives mixed with in Hurly Wisconson (or so the story goes).

  3. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 9, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

    Ed: Thanks for the tip. According to Wikipedia, pasties (the food) are known in Cornish-influenced regions of the Midwest: "parts of Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and the Iron Range of northern Minnesota."

  4. Meep said,

    July 9, 2008 @ 6:20 pm

    They could have just called it an empanada.

  5. Aaron Davies said,

    July 9, 2008 @ 9:03 pm

    I believe the Jamaican mean-in-pastry-shell item, available from many New York City street vendors, is also called a "pasty". Whether it's pronounced with a /æ/ or a /eɪ/, I don't know.

  6. Seth Knox said,

    July 9, 2008 @ 10:41 pm

    Ed/Benjamin: In Michigan, pasties are strongly identified with the UP. However, they are pretty well-known in the LP as well (I live in the south-eastern LP). Pasties do, however, become increasingly common as one drives north in Michigan, and the population becomes increasingly Scandinavian.

  7. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 9, 2008 @ 11:37 pm

    Aaron D.: I've only seen those called patties.

  8. Mean in a pastry shell said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 5:37 am

    *muffled*Get your fat paws off me!

  9. Bill Muir said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 7:33 am

    Supposedly pasties are popular in Toledo too. Yet more evidence that it's really a part of Michigan.

  10. ed said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 9:12 am

    I should also mention that they are well-known in Kearny New Jersey.

  11. Ryan Rosso said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 9:59 am

    @Bill: I would be careful to say they are popular in Michigan as a whole… Being from the lower peninsula, one rarely ever hears this term, save for its usage by the occasional yooper (from the upper peninsula).

  12. Larry said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 11:01 am

    Here in Mexico they are called pastes. They were brought here by Cornish miners working in the mines of Hidalgo state, northeast of Mexico City.

  13. John O'Toole said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

    Out of curiosity then, how would a Welsh miner, or minor, or even anyone in the UK, pronounce the occasionally tasseled ferrule or finial-like thingum that once stood between miners and minors and all other gawkers, on the one hand, and uncontrollable bare-nippled lust, on the other?

  14. Ken Brown said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 12:33 pm

    "how would a Welsh miner, or minor, or even anyone in the UK, pronounce the occasionally tasseled ferrule"

    Probably something like "nipple shield"

  15. Nick Lamb said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

    I have a mix CD from a (fellow Brit) friend's birthday, it describes
    track 3 as "less confusing now I know that pasties are also the word for
    those little stick-on things to cover nipples."

    The track 3 in question is Tom Waits singing Pasties and a G-string.

    So apparently the pronunciation is at least similar enough that people
    familiar with the one word assume the other is just a variation until
    they're forced to re-evaluate.

  16. Nick Lamb said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 3:02 pm

    Oops, I missed out the most salient point. I don't think British and
    American pronunciation differs for either word, it's just that one word
    is more common in the US, and the other in the UK. Both presumably also
    have the uncommon adjective "pasty" to describe something which is "like paste".

  17. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 5:37 pm

    For anyone interested in the regional distribution of pasty in the US, the relevant page in the Dictionary of American Regional English (Vol. 4, p. 54) is viewable on Google Book Search. It appears to be uniformly pronounced as ['pæsti(z)].

  18. Jim Roberts said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 7:44 pm

    "Pastry didn't "become" pasty, though the two are etymologically related."

    I took his use of the word "become" to refer to the transition from the one sentence to the other. He's talking about "Cornish pasties" in one sentence and "pastry . . . in Cornwall" in the next.

  19. Will Fitzgerald said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 8:48 pm

    Definitely in Michigan (where I live) I've only heard ['pæsti(z)], and the pronunciation of ['peistiz] often produces hooting laughter in the hearer.

  20. Michael said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 12:12 am

    As another data point, in Australia at least we spell the singular of 'pasties' (the food) as 'pastie', and pronounce it more like ['pasti(z)]. 'Pasty' is exclusively used to describe the complexions of the English.

  21. Jeremy said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 2:35 am

    Two points.

    First, I reckon that pasties the nipple shields derive their name from the fact that they are glued on with paste.

    Secondly, and more importantly, I believe that Dubner fell victim to something much worse than prescriptive retaliation. That says that if you're pointing out an error, you're liable to make a (different) error yourself.

    Dubner was pointing out an error that was not an error.

    This is an entirely different kettle of fish. It is common in creationist arguments, of course, but not elsewhere, I don't think.

    Should it be graced with a name? Possibly one honouring Dubner? A Dubnerflub?

  22. Helen DeWitt said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 9:11 pm

    Until I reached the comment about nipple shields I had no idea what the problem was supposed to be. I lived in Britain for 20 years, it would never have occurred to me that 'Cornish pasties' could refer to anything but a rather unappetising envelope of baked dough filled with meat, potato and onion. I'm not even sure what a Cornish pastry would be.

  23. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 12, 2008 @ 8:32 am

    Jeremy: You're right that this is a bit worse than the Law of Prescriptive Retaliation. Mark wrote about similar cases in the post, "Why are so many linguistic corrections incorrect?" In that post Mark borrows the term "incorrection" from William Safire ("a correction that is itself incorrect"), but Coby Lubliner argues that we should use "miscorrection." I've taken to using "miscorrection" in my Cupertino posts.

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