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When I was growing up in the 1950's, my mother used "piece" as a verb, meaning to snack on something outside of mealtime. She might say "Do you want to piece on something?" while offering me a cookie. Or she would tell me not to piece too close to dinnertime. I have never heard anyone else say it excepet members of her family. She was born in southeast Kansas in 1926 to people of German and British descent.

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    Various verbal uses are given in the OED, such as 'piecing together', but not this one. I do recognise it having heard Americans employ the expression in connection with snacking. But I believe it to be entirely foreign to use in Britain. In my recollection we have never used it.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 13, 2014 at 23:55
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    This curious use of to piece makes me think of German beißen ( to bite). Sometimes people of German stock just anglicize German words or take an English word with similar form.
    – rogermue
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 3:25

6 Answers 6

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I suspect that the British side of your family was from Scotland where a "Piece" was, and still is, a snack (to be more precise, a Sandwich - usually a Jeely [jelly] Piece).

Scottish school children still take a "Play Piece" for the morning recess break, this can be anything from fruit to biscuits (cookies), crisps (chips) or even a Jam Sandwich.

However, piece is a noun, it may be that, across the pond, over the years the action of having a "Piece" evolved into a verb.

There are loads of examples of common English words that are used VERY differently in Scotland. To row usually means to argue, but in Scotland you can give someone a row (tell them off) or request, usually from a younger person to an older person, that the older person "Give (another younger individual) a row" for some transgression. In the West of Scotland one can even "Give someone INTO a row".

In most parts of the world Messages are delivered, in Scotland people "go FOR the messages" - do a shopping!

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  • +1. Note that extreme SE Kansas is an area in the USA where Southern Midland is the predominant dialect. This particular dialect is said to be heavily influenced by Scots-Irish immigrants.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 14, 2015 at 17:39
  • Do Scots say "Jelly" where the English would say "Jam"? I didn't know that.
    – tgdavies
    Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 1:58
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My grandmother also always used piece in this way, as a verb: "Were you piecing on the cake?", or "I feel a little hungry; I could piece on some leftovers."

Her maiden name was Tandy and she had Scotch and Irish ancestors, but both sides of her family had been in the US a very long time (one ancestor on the Mayflower, DAR eligible on both sides) — she was born in Oregon in 1920. She also still used "et" and "het."

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This is the first link I've found in reference to the phrase "to piece on." I was surprised to find that none of the online dictionaries refer to this term. I heard both of my parents use this phrase when I was growing up, (beginning in the mid-1950s) and, indeed, all their lives. My father still "pieced on nuts" right up until his death at age 93 this year.

Both sides of my family are entirely of Italian descent, so any German or Scottish etymological origins would have been passed on by way of locality, not through family/cultural usage. My mother was born and raised in Ohio, and my father lived in Illinois during his youth and college years. (Their parents all immigrated from Italy.) It may be a Midwestern phrase, and appears to have existed prior to the 1950s - at least in Ohio. My father received a letter from the dean of Ohio University in 1946 in which the dean remarked, "How could I forget a man who pieced on two dozen donuts?"

Thanks for the posts that have shed some light on this phrase.

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I have only used in the context of piecing together a puzzle. Although it may take its roots from piecemeal the adverb.

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/piecemeal

And here the etymology suggests just that:

https://www.google.com/search?q=piecemeal&oq=piece&aqs=chrome.0.69i59j69i57j69i60.1889j0j4&sourceid=chrome&espv=210&es_sm=93&ie=UTF-8

enter image description here

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My mother used this when I was growing up in southeastern Ohio in the 50s and 60s. All of her ancestors were in Ohio by 1840 but there is a background of British, Scot, and Scotch-Irish that came to the US between mid 1600s to 1800. They were mainly from PA but also NJ and MA. Families in the area had no discernible cultural background either. Thanks for this information.

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If the person who used to "piece" in connection with eating then she might be influenced either by Scottish words as said in one post or by German words such as beißen (to bite) or Imbiß (a snack). I think the source of "Imbiß" is (only) ein Biß (a snack that is really not more than one bite). But etymological dictionaries may have something else. And it might well be that your mother formed a new verb from beißen or Imbiß and took the simiar-sounding English word piece that actually has a different meaning. - Such things can be observed with German-Americans who anglicize German words and use them. I think I have read a text of Mark Twain who illustrated such a German American speaker, who talks about a rattlesnake. But I can't remember what text it was. At least the text is very funny as most things of Mark Twain.

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  • How could one not note Früh-Stück in this context, literally "early piece", actually breakfast with all the same senses; Both don't have fully convincing etymologies, and in my humble Opinion might actually be related (cp break of dawn, for one)
    – vectory
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 16:29

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