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I was looking at a recipe for "Vele, kede, or henne in Bokenade" from a 15th century cookery book, but am confused by the words "smyte" and "pecys" in the following phrase:

an smyte hem in pecys

I assume this means "and smite him in pieces", which might be rewritten as "cut it into pieces"? However, none of the etymologies I've read for "smite" or "pieces" list these words as the origin.

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    These words are not ancestral to smite and pieces--they are merely old spellings, from a time before English spelling was (more or less) fixed. Look in the OED or MED and you'll find them in the spelling variants. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 26 '18 at 15:05
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    Hem is plural: it means "them" rather than "him". – ruakh Feb 26 '18 at 16:41
  • @ruakh It can be, but it is not necessarily so; it could also be used to mean ‘it’ (and ‘him’, of course). Since the anaphor here is “Vele, Kyde or Henne”, singular would be at least as probable (mandatory in Modern English). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 26 '18 at 19:24
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As StoneyB says, these are just old spellings of the two words smite and pieces. Most resources (e.g. your average dictionary) will not list all the different spellings a word had throughout history for the simple reason that it takes up a lot of space (many words were spelled in dozens and dozens of different ways).

There are two resources I know of that list historical spellings of words: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the Middle English Dictionary (MED).

You will not be able to access the OED without a subscription, but it does mention both the spellings. It says that the smyte spelling was used from the Middle Ages up until the 1600s. Also, the relevant definition of smite for your passage is:

trans. Chiefly with adverbial complement, as asunder, into pieces, in two, etc.: to cut, chop, or break apart, into pieces, etc.

You can also see this spelling attested in the MED (unlike the OED, anyone can access the MED).

Both the OED and the MED have quotations that use the pecys spelling for pieces. (However it is bizarrely enough not listed in either dictionary's forms section.)

  • Re: "You will not be able to access the OED without a subscription": True, but note that you don't necessarily need an individual subscription; for example, many libraries provide their members with online access to the OED via proxy servers. Re: "there doesn't appear to be a singular version of this spelling": I think pecys is pece + -ys, just as (say) Modern passes is pass + -es. – ruakh Feb 26 '18 at 16:38
  • @ruakh You're certainly right about OED access (I certainly don't have an individual subscription...I just pay a lot of tuition and get some perks). As for what spelling "pecys" is a plural of (if any), I'm not sure, so I removed the sentence entirely. – Laurel Feb 26 '18 at 17:07

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