“Peckish”

The public radio program “Marketplace” recently aired a piece about a new sitcom called “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which is set in West Covina, California. Discussing why she chose that town, one of the show’s producers (a female American, complete with vocal fry) said among other things she liked the fact that the local mall had pretzel shops at both entrances, “just in case you got peckish for a pretzel.” [Note: A commenter observes that “peckish for” is unidiomatic. It strikes me that this woman’s use of it grew out of the currently popular “hungry for”–as in “hungry for lunch”–as discussed here.]

This was the first time I was aware of encountering an American use of “peckish”–defined concisely by the OED as “somewhat hungry.” All of the dictionary’s citations are British with the exception of this from Laurie Colwin’s 1988 book Home Cooking: “At four in the afternoon, everyone feels a little peckish, but only the British have institutionalised this feeling.” (I wondered whether Colwin eschewed the American spelling “institutionalized”; Google Books told me “no.”)

It’s interesting that she would have mentioned 4 p.m., because I personally tend to get peckish in the morning. Many other people apparently do as well, hence the (British) custom of “elevenses,” for which Winnie-the-Pooh Paddington favored  honey on bread with condensed milk.

Anyway, it turns out that “peckish” shows up here now and again. It’s appeared sporadically in the New York Times in recent years, most recently in a review of a bar on the Lower East Side: “If peckish, try the matzo-meal fried chicken with pastrami-spiced gravy ($23).” Somehow, I don’t think Winnie-the-Pooh would approve.

21 responses to ““Peckish”

  1. I love the word peckish, it’s even good to use when you are actually famished but don’t want to appear forward in a group that perhaps it’s time to eat.

    I also use “a bit peckish”… How small can the amount of food you wish to consume be?

    Perhaps saying “micro peckish” is a bit far.

    Steven

  2. Always reminded me of chickens gathering corn in the farm yard. “I just feel like doing some pecking in the dirt.”

  3. I had to look up “vocal fry” … (from the other side of the pond)

    • I had to look it up, too. To save others the trouble: “Vocal fry is the low, vibratory sound that comes in some people’s speech, particularly at the end of sentences.” There are several demonstrative examples on YouTube.

  4. Both examples (get peckish and if peckish) struck me as slightly off in the way they use the word. I wouldn’t ever be peckish or get peckish. For me it goes with feeling (as in your Home Cooking reference): I am feeling peckish / I feel peckish / just in case you felt peckish / if feeling peckish…

  5. Wrong bear. Elevenses were much more part of Paddington’s routine (with Mr Gruber at the back of his shop on the Portobello Rd), than Pooh Bear’s.

    Funny though that you hardly hear anyone using “elevenses” nowadays. But as a child, whenever I stayed with my grandparents, everything paused for a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive at around eleven.

    • Yes, Pooh always fancied a little smackerel,

    • Winnie the Pooh gave us that other great gustatory phrase: “Time for a little something”. That could be any time, of course. We use it frequently in our house. There is also a French version of this which I’m told is somewhat upper-class, or perhaps genteel (in the aged aunt bracket): ‘un petit en-cas’ or ‘a little in-case’.

  6. My first — and favourite — encounter with “peckish” is from John Cleese in the Monty Python cheese sketch.

  7. I use the word quite often. “I’m feeling a bit peckish.” Of course, it’s probably from hearing it so often on British programs!

  8. I didn’t know “elevenses” was still ever used non-ironically in BrE. I thought it was archaic.

    A play on ngrams suggests that I was wrong, with the ratio of “elevenses” to “morning tea” (which is what I would say in AusE) being more or less stable at 40% since the 1940, having gained a popularity in the 1930s that has never been lost. Interestingly, “elevenses” and “morning tea” rise and fall in tandem. I do not know how to explain these observations.

    • I have elevenses almost every day. To me, ‘morning tea’ is the cup placed by my bedside by my ever-loving spouse to enable me to get my eyes open first thing in the morning. Morning coffee equates to elevenses in terms of time slot, but in order to be ‘elevenses’, it must be ‘thickened by food’ (as Augustus Carp might say). Afternoon tea does not require food (though may include it). ‘High tea’ is a full cold-table meal, of course.

  9. A great word, but “peckish for…” is unidiomatic. You are just peckish, or more usually “a bit peckish”

    Anyway this reminds me of some famous graffiti some years ago in Peckham, south London. Someone had written on a wall “Ireland for the Irish” and underneath somebody had added “Peckham for the peckish”

    • Or indeed (straying even further from the subject) the old British Rail poster advertising “Dover for the Continent”, to which somebody had added “Clacton for the Incontinent”…

      • I thought it was a sign at Liverpool Street station saying ‘Harwich for the Continent’ and ‘Frinton for the Incontinent’ on the supposition that everybody in Frinton was an OAP. Bit unkind really.

    • Or ‘Free Wales – one with every four gallons’…

  10. I am impressed at how this site continues to inform and amuse!
    We had family visit from Australia last weekend. We had a late but large breakfast Sunday morning and were about all done at 10:45. As the table was being cleared Douglas (from Sydney) announced it was time for “elevenses”….. I don’t think he was peckish! At least his BMI offered no justification for any further nutrition but we all had a laugh!

  11. It’s nearly eleven a.m. here in England. I don’t suppose anyone has a recipe for a matzo meal fried chicken with pastrami spiced gravy?

  12. From “O, Brother, Where Art Thou?
    Big Dan Teague: “Thank you boys for throwin’ in that fricassee. I’m a man of large appetite, and even with lunch under my belt, I was feelin’ a mite peckish.”

    • I’m just getting a faint bell ringing in the back of my mind of the word being used in Walt Kelly’s Pogo cartoons which appeared from the 50s to the 70s, but without going back through them all, I couldn’t be certain. It sounds like the sort of thing Albert the Alligator would say.

  13. There is much that is interesting in the cheese shop sketch. For example, the use by the shopkeeper of the phrase ‘fresh out of’, which was a completely alien Americanism at the time, and John Cleese’s (I assume facetious) spelling pronunciation of the tutting sound written ‘tsk tsk’.

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