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As easy as pi

Posted by Smokey Stover on April 15, 2010 at 02:49

In Reply to: As easy as pie posted by Brian Dennis on April 14, 2010 at 09:38:

: I always assumed that this saying originated in the printing business. Before the days of computers we used to create a word to print by putting a metal piece of type next to another with the character in relief on the top (and back to front) so when it was inked and paper pressed down on it, it was able to be read. When a line, paragraph or even a page of these metal characters were put together they were extremely unstable. Consequently were often knocked over and mixed up. This was called a pie. As an ex-compositor I can fully vouch that pies were extremely easy to create.

: Far easier than creating a nice apple pie!

As an ex-compositor (yes, I really am, or really was), I always saw and heard that type that had been pied was called pi. It was one of the jobs of the printer's devil, which I was for a time, to sort out pi, which means, of course, laboriously to pick up each piece and put it back in the correct box in the correct case. (A "case" was a sort of tray.)

(As Mr. Dennis certainly knows, the compositor, in setting up a text in his stick, drew type from two cases set one above the other. The upper case contained majuscule letters, the lower case minuscule.)

The principal way to pi type was to drop it accidentally. No one would do it on purpose, of course, and measures were taken to make it less likely that pieces of type would drop out of the forme.

For more information, consult Joseph Moxon's Mechanick Exercises (1683 et seq.), of which the 1703 edition is still in print. This interesting book contains a discussion of letterpress printing, but also much, much more. It's an interesting work to peruse.

But we're not finished. Easy as pie, it turns out, does not refer to making a pie, which can be quite tricky, but rather to eating one, which takes no talent at all. (This phrase is discussed in our Archive.)