The term humble pie (or alternatively umble pie) dates from the 17th century. It comes from umbles or numbles, which mean the internal organs of an animal. An umble pie was therefore originally a pie made from the organ meat of an animal. From Kenelm Digby’s The Closet of Sir K.D. Opened, written before 1648:
To season Humble-Pyes.
In the 19th century the term acquired the modern sense of submission or humility. This sense is certainly a play on the earlier sense of a meat dish coupled with the sense of humble meaning humility. From Robert Forby’s 1830 The Vocabulary of East Anglia:
“To make one eat humble pie"—i.e. To make him lower his tone, and be submissive. It may possibly be derived from the umbles of the deer, which were the perquisite of the huntsman; and if so, it should be written umble-pie, the food of inferiors.
Humble, meaning dismissive of one’s abilities, derives from the Old French umble and eventually traces back to the Latin humilem and humus (earth). From a Kentish sermon written c.1250:
Ure lord god almichti...þurch his grace maked of þo euele manne good man, of þe orgeilus umble.
(Our lord god almighty…through his grace makes of an evil man a good man, of the prideful humble.)
Umbles, the meat, comes from the Old French numbles which in turn comes from the Latin lumbus meaning loin. Its English usage dates to the 15th century. From Babees Book, c.1475:
Brawne with mustard, umblys of a dere or of a sepe.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton