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What is the meaning of "have one's fingers in every pie"? I know it is an idiom, but I can't find its meaning in any online dictionary.

Also, I want to ask if it is a neutral phrase or if it has any negative/positive connotation.

  • Welcome to EL&U. Try Cambridge, American Heritage via Reference.com, BBC Learning English to start. – choster Dec 14 '15 at 6:42
  • Its meaning: to be ​involved in and have ​influence over many different ​activities, often in a way that ​"people do not ​approve of". [Cambridge Online Dictionary] – user140086 Dec 14 '15 at 6:42
  • ah...I did not type in the right order, no wonder I can't find any explanations. Thanks for the links and explanation above. – Shim Shay Dec 14 '15 at 8:01
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    There is actually some ambiguity about whether the phrase implies only participation in a wide array of activities or may also imply some degree of meddling. I was within 5 minutes of posting an answer to this question, detailing the disagreement among reference authorities, when the "This question has been closed" banner popped up. I would very much like to post my answer, and I have nominated the question for reopening in hopes that I may. Thanks! – Sven Yargs Dec 14 '15 at 8:12
  • @Sven waiting on you to make good... – Kit Z. Fox Dec 15 '15 at 1:30
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What some reference books say

For some reason, both Cambridge’s book of idioms and Oxford’s book of idioms divide the finger-in-pie idiom into two subforms—and then give diametrically opposite definitions with regard to which subform is benign and which subform is intrusive. From Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms (1998):

have a finger in every pie to be involved in and have influence over many different activities, often in a way that other people do not approve of [Example:] You can't make a decision on any kind of funding without consulting him—he has a finger in every pie.

have a finger in the pie to be involved in a particular activity [Example:] When it comes to trade in the underdeveloped parts of the world, most Western countries want to have a finger in the pie.

Cambridge seems to view having a finger in every pie as the behavior of a busybody, whereas having a finger in a particular pie signifies activity not necessarily drawing or deserving censure. In contrast, John Ayto, Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, third edition (2009) has these two entries:

have a finger in every pie be involved in a large and varied number of activities or enterprises.

have a finger in the pie be involved in a matter, especially in an annoyingly interfering way.

Evidently, Oxford and Cambridge simply don't see eye to eye (or pie to pie) on this question.

Here is the entry for "have a finger in the pie" in Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997):

finger in the pie, have a Have an interest in or meddle in something. For example, When they nominated me for the board, I'm not sure Bill had a finger in the pie. Another form of the idiom is have a finger in every pie, meaning "to have an interest in or be involved in everything," as in She does a great deal for the town; she has a finger in every pie. The precise origin of this metaphor, which presumably alludes either to tasting every pie or being involved in their construction, has been lost. {Late 1500s}

Ammer seems to follow the Oxford view that the multiple-pie fingerer is chiefly to be seen as vigorous (for participating in the production of so many pies) while the single-pie fingerer borders on meddlesomeness (for not keeping his or her fingers to him- or herself). But at the very least, the "finger in every pie" expression invites a rather unsettling image of Jack Horner, public citizen, sticking his thumb into every pie he can reach. Whether he is right in imagining himself a good boy on that account is perhaps a matter for each reader to decide.

In contrast to the Oxford/Ammer position, Robert Hendrickson, The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, fourth edition (2008) sees the phrase "finger in the pie" as nonpejorative:

finger in the pie. This expression, recorded in 1659, has nothing to do with being meddlesome, as has been suggested. It means simply "to have something to do with, to have a part in something." "Lusatia ... must needs, forsooth, have her Finger in the Pye" is the first attested use of the words.

But arguing that a phrase has nothing to do with an interpretation that some people have put forward is meaningful only if the question is what the phrase originally meant. What the phrase means today depends entirely on what people intend for it to mean when they use it today—and if some people use it to suggest meddlesomeness, it most certainly can have that connotation now, even if more people use it to mean simply active participation in many endeavors.


Historical examples

A Google books search turns up matches for “a finger in every pie” going back to this 1771 translation of The History of the Renowned Don Quixote de la Mancha:

Now, as I was trudging home, whom should I pick up by the way, but this hedge madam here; and the Devil, who has a finger in every pie, being powerful, forced us to yoke together. I gave her that which would have contented any reasonable woman ; but she was not satisfied, and wanted more money ; and would never leave me till she had dragged me hither

The earliest instance of the phrase in an original English work appears to be from James Makittrick, alias Adair, Curious Facts and Anecdotes, Not Contained in the Memoirs of Philip Thicknesse, Esq. (1790):

Th[icknesse] who always had a finger in every pie, where any thing was to be got, assisted the late Duchess of Kingston in her altercation with Mr. Foote, who, by way of retaliation, exhibited those personages in his trip to Calais, under the characters of Lady Kitty Crocodile and Doctor Viper : Foote used to say of Th. that he had the stupidity of an owl, the vulgarity of a blackguard, the obdurate heart of an assassin, and the cowardice of a dunghill cock.

The earliest Google Books instance of “fingers in every pie” is from "The Book-Merchant’s Tour," in Hints to My Countrymen “by an American” (Theodore Sedgwick) (1826):

”Yes,” said I, “I see you have the American blood running in your veins : you will have your fingers in every pie : it's your own canal : you obtained permission to make it, at Lexington and Bennington. I suppose you are quite sure too, that it does not belong to the king, nor the king's son, nor the duke of Bridgewater, and that it is not filled with the tears of the people.”

One early instance of "a finger [or fingers] in every pie" has the moon influencing—if not meddling in—many aspects of rural affairs in a British village. From J.K. Paulding, “Retiring From the Cares of Life,” in Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book (October 1846):

”...You cannot conceive what an interest we take in the moon, whose face is a perpetual subject of contemplation, whose changes bode us either good or ill, and who, like a meddling gossip in a country town, has, according to opinions hallowed by time and confirmed by experience, a finger in almost every pie."

Seeing me shake my head in token of dissent, he continued, with still more earnestness — " Yes, a finger in every pie. I would no more kill my pigs or sow my grain in the decrease of the moon than in the dead of winter. ...”

Another is from “France,” in The Rambler, a Catholic Journal of Home and Foreign Literature(1858):

And then what are all these people to do? What can they do but poke their noses into what does not concern them ; and more and more encourage the ministers, already sufficiently inclined that way, to have a finger in every pie, and to intermeddle with every thing which the real freeman cherishes as most sacred?

A much later example makes the same connection unequivocally. From Cornelius Weygandt, “Things Are for Use,” in The [University of Pennsylvania] General Magazine and Historical Chronicle (October 1941):

Nor am I advocating meddlesome Matties, people who must be pushing themselves in everywhere, who must have a finger in every pie. Such folks think no project or organization can get along without them, that they have a divine right to run things. I know well a man of this sort in a state far from here, who honestly believes that unless he directs things, things will not be well run.

On the other hand, the positive sense of the phrase is evident in this example from The Poughkeepsie [New York] Casket (April 20, 1839):

Sovereigns as we are of our own acts politically and morally, we all feel that we are under the necessity of having a finger in every pie ; and when one individual conceives a plan for the advancement of his fellows or his country, every body that chances to hear of it volunteers his services in aid of the ‘philanthropic design,’ or ‘laudable enterprise.’

Hendrickson’s example from 1656 is a translation of Jean-Nicolas de Parival, The History of This Iron Age: Wherein is Set Down the True State of Europe, as It Was in the Year 1500 (1656):

Lusatia, depending upon the Kingdom of Bohemia, was the allyance, and must needs, forsooth, have her finger in the Pye. This Province was recommended, to the Electour of Saxonie; who choosing rather to proceed by way of accommodation, then presently to fly to extremities, made the States acquainted with his Commission ; shewed then the danger of persisting in obstinacy ; and would have certainly have perswaded them, had not the Marquis of Lagerendorp broken the negotiation by force of arms and brought the Negotiatours away prisoners.

But even in Parival's example, it seems to me, whether the author views the inclination of the state of Lusatia to have her finger in a pie as being the natural and commendable attitude of an industrious baker or the act of a greedy pie poker is by no means clear.


Conclusions

Oxford and Cambridge agree that the closely allied phrases "a finger in every pie" and "a finger in the pie" convey different attitudes toward the pie-fingering behavior—one approving or neutral and one disapproving or skeptical. But they disagree about which form is which.

A third view, put forward by Robert Hendrickson, argues that any note of disapproval associated with the phrase "a finger in the pie" misunderstands the original tone of the expression, which "has nothing to do with being meddlesome."

Historically, however, many instances of the phrase have explicitly or implicitly involved accusations of meddling, interference, or partisan activity. Overall, though people do use the phrase neutrally in some situations, an element of perceived self-interest and aggressive intrusiveness is easy to detect in many others.

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