If a “happy meal” once made you excited as a kid, would a “peace meal” make you excited as a grown up? “Happy” is good, but “peace” is a larger group undertaking. I know it’s not that simple, but I like the idea of a “peace meal,” even if this isn’t the actual spelling of the word.
What are we actually talking about?
To do something bit by bit. To do it in pieces. First things first, the beginning of this word is “piece” not “peace.” Got it? Good. But what about the rest of it?
Piecemeal? Piecemail? Piece-what?
I know “meal” doesn’t seem logical here—there’s nothing involving food to mention, no calories and nothing Instagram-worthy—but that is the correct spelling of this word: “P-I-E-C-E-M-E-A-L.”
The truth of it is that “piecemeal” is simply a really old word, dating back to roughly 1300, and this “meal” ending that was once completely logical has transformed into something bemusing, something befuddling. But here’s what you should know.
“Piecemeal” comes from the word “piece,” as we understand it today (isn’t it awesome when there’s a not tricky part?), combined with the suffix or word ending “-meal.” But, again, let’s think past food. This old “meal” was used around the concept of measurement. For example, a “footmeal”—or fotmælum in Old English—was not a time to sit and dine on feet, it was talking about the length of a foot. Moreover, it was more than a measurement. It was understood as “foot by foot,” or a little bit at a time. Footmeal. Thus, “piecemeal” could be understood not just as a small measurement but also “piece by piece,” which would hold the same meaning for us today.
We should also add into this conversation the old word “fingermeal,” which is not a meal to be eaten with one’s fingers, but that same old use of “meal” as a measurement, as in the length of a finger.
Footmeal. Fingermeal. Piecemeal. It’s all coming together now, isn’t it?
Hopefully. At least you’ll get the spelling right, and please remember “piecemeal” is a single word. No hyphen is necessary.
We’re not talking world peace within this word. I’ve even heard interesting arguments about how maybe it’s “piecemail” related to the chainmail (also spelled “chainmaille”) a knight might have worn in the Middle Ages (the little links joining up piece by piece to make the whole). To this, I say, cool idea and very creative, but just because you can make up a story, that doesn’t mean it’s true.
Wait a moment, I’m sensing a moral here. You know I love storytellers, but there’s a time and a place for such creativity. Spreading #fakenews about etymology stories … that’s just going too far.
Do you have any word origin stories you always believed were true but then they actually weren’t? I feel you. But now is the time to get things right—to write things right—to right the wrongs by writing them right.