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In the children's renowned tongue twister, which was first published in London 1813, we learn

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked.
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?

It seems that Peter picked the equivalent of 9 kg of fresh peppers (a peck) that were either destined to be pickled or perhaps he took the pickled delicacy from a vat.

Could it be that Peter stole the pickles? Etymonline says the verb pick took on the sense of “to rob, plunder” which was later watered down to “steal petty things, filch or pilfer from” by the late 14c.

Were capsicum peppers grown in England? Perhaps they were a well-known delicacy imported to England? I searched in Google Books for the recipe of pickled peppers in the 19th century and found very few references, and from what I could tell they were all by American cooks. The earliest reference I could find is from the American The Valley Farmer- Page 405 printed in 1854

enter image description here

EDIT
I found an earlier recipe dated 1850, from a book entitled Practical Cook Book Containing Upwards of One Thousand Receipts… by Mrs Bliss, a Bostonian.

PEPPERS

Pick the peppers late in the season, just before they begin to turn red; soak them ten days in a strong brine of salt and water; then, if they have a good green color, remove them from the brine to clear cold water, in which let them soak twenty four hours; if they have not a good green color, they will get it by a scalding in the brine; drain them, and if you wish them very hot, pack them away whole in cold vinegar; if you wish them very mild remove their seeds–scraping them out through a slit cut in the side of each pepper and pack them in vinegar. They ought to be good pickles in eight weeks.

  • If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, is there any evidence to suggest that children or readers in the 19th century would have understood Peter was a thief?

  • What type of peppers were pickled in 18th and 19th century England? I don't think Capsicum peppers were ever grown there.

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  • 3
    I assume it's very likely, since the Dutch 'pikken' means 'to steal' (and 'to pick' (e.g. flowers) is 'plukken'.
    – Joachim
    Jan 6 at 15:37
  • 3
    Sidebar, now I wonder if our modern pronunciation is faithful to the original tongue twister. I've always felt it was pretty easy (American English).
    – Laurel
    Jan 6 at 18:41
  • 4
    The word pickpocket comes to mind.
    – Tim
    Jan 7 at 9:09
  • 3
    To confuse things even more "black pepper" is green before it it dried, and can be pickled... though its possible that the common 'pepper' of the time might have been long pepper (piper longum) not black pepper (piper nigrum). But that's a matter for another site :D Jan 7 at 11:59
  • 3
    As far as I know, Capsicum peppers weren't consumed by anyone as a dish except out of desperation. They were a commercial crop used as a spice and meat preservative prior to the great depression of 1928. Then suddenly, there was zero demand for the crop since nobody was buying meat. So recipes for peppers were created since they were available by the ton for nearly nothing. Bell peppers stuffed with rice became a soup kitchen staple during the great depression, and have remained a comfort food ever since.
    – Phil Sweet
    Jan 7 at 18:37

6 Answers 6

22
+200

If "Peter Piper" does come from Pierre Poivre (since 1769-1770), then there is a high probability that the word "picked" in the tongue twister does allude to pickpocketing/stealing:

There is some debate among historians over whether the French missionary, botanist, and master smuggler Pierre Poivre (literally "Peter Pepper") was in fact the original Peter Piper who, legend has it, picked a peck of pickled peppers. Certainly his name suggests a direct link (piper is Latin for "pepper"), and while pickled peppers do not appear in his biography, he did manage to pickpocket (read steal/pilfer) other valuable spices from the epicenter of the Dutch monopoly. Born in 1719, Poivre led a globe-trotting, multidisciplinary life.

(Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World (2016))

His surname translates to "pepper" in English, and peppers are in the genus Piper. The earliest printed version of this tongue twister was in Peter Piper's Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation, published by John Harris in London in 1813, which includes a tongue twister for each letter of the alphabet, all basically of the same structure as the Peter Piper verse. However, the rhyme was apparently known at least a generation earlier, and possibly reflects Poivre's efforts to grow pepper and other spices in the French oceanic islands. Green peppercorns were often preserved in liquid, or "pickled" for import.

(Herbarium: The Quest to Preserve and Classify the World's Plants (2020))

Here are two examples where pick was understood to mean "steal" // Or people using the tongue twister in the context of picking/stealing (Note that the examples are from the 20th century):

"You know, Mrs. Dyer, I simply couldn't settle what to call this wicked angel." And she looked deprecatingly up into the face of the cook, who, professing detestation of all animals, secretly adored them. "I shall call him Peter Piper, because, you see, he would have picked a peck of pickled pepper if he could possibly have managed it, only he sneezed too much."
"It's taught him a lesson about stealing off kitchen tables, I should hope, miss," Mrs. Dyer responded grimly.

(The Windsor Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly for Men and Women, Volume 46 (1917))

"The first degree of evidence, and that which, though open to error and misconception, is obviously most satisfactory to the mind, is afforded by our own senses" (Taylor on Evidence, edit., 1885, vol. 1. p. 497).
Consequently the fact-finder must be very careful to collect all the things still in existence which may possibly throw any light upon the matter in issue. "If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper, where is the peck of pickled pepper Peter Piper picked?" The absence of such an article is often a conclusive objection to the prosecution for picking and stealing, where the prisoner has had no opportunity of disposing of the property.

(The Irish Law Times and Solicitors' Journal, Volume 36 (1902))


There's a mention of this tongue twister in a literary essay dated November 14, 1799, but the pepper isn't pickled:

"Peter Piper pick'd a peck of pepper;
If Peter Piper pick'd a peck of pepper;
Where's the peck of pepper Peter Piper pick'd!"

(Literary Leisure; Or, The Recreations of Solomon Saunter, Esq: (1802))


Some possible interpretations:

  • The word "picked" could be an allusion to Pierre Poivre's "clandestine smuggling forays (to steal plants and seeds from the Dutch Spice Islands in 1769–1770)".

  • The variation involving "pickled" peppers (from 1813) was probably meant to spice up the original tongue twister (from 1799, see above). Or perhaps it was meant to narrow down the type of pepper used in the original tongue twister.

  • From Merriam Webster, "pilfer" means "to steal stealthily in small amounts and often again and again". Peter Piper probably stole the (pickled) pepper in small amounts until he had collected a total of 9 litres or a peck of (pickled) pepper.


Although there is evidence that picked could allude to stealing (if one were to dig deeper into the tongue twister's possible background/origin), there isn't much solid evidence to suggest that people understood picked (in the tongue twister) to mean "steal", at least in the 18th and 19th century. Without knowing the possible origin of the tongue twister, I believe most readers (then and now) understood the tongue twister in it's literal sense, where any of these two definitions could be applied:

pick (v.)

Meaning "to pluck with the hand or fingers, gather, break off, collect" (fruit, etc.) is from early 14c.

picked (adj.)

"chosen for excellence, specially selected," hence "choicest, best," 1540s, past-participle adjective from pick (v.).

(Etymonline)

In the case of "pickled" peppers, "picked" as an adjective would make more sense, since peppers aren't pickled from birth. So the verb sense would apply to earlier versions of the tongue twister where the pepper isn't pickled.

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  • 1
    Yes, I checked. And it seems in 1802 there was a well-known version without the "pickled". I can't give you two upvotes though, but an excellent find.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 6 at 14:58
  • 2
    The tongue twister is also mentioned in “Literary Leisure; Or, The Recreations of Solomon Saunter, Esq:” 1802 books.google.it/…
    – user 66974
    Jan 6 at 17:09
  • 2
    and also in “The Anti-Jacobin Review and Protestant Advocate: Monthly Political and Literary Censor” 1802 : books.google.it/…
    – user 66974
    Jan 6 at 17:17
  • 1
    I can thoroughly recommend reading the critical essay on the poem in Justin's link to The Port Folio. An excellent satire on the nature of critical essays. It also would suggest that in 1802 it was probably understood to refer to harvesting of peppercorns, rather than theft of capsicums. Jan 7 at 10:55
  • 2
    @PhilMJones yes, I liked the article from The Port Folio magazine myself. And harvesting peppercorns makes more sense than pickled peppers; the pickled element was added later for alliterative purposes, silliness and to make the tongue twister more fun.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 7 at 13:13
12
+100

Is there any evidence to suggest that readers understood pick in the rhyme as steal? No.

The best evidence would come from direct treatments of the poem that acknowledge the alternate reading. For instance, if an expanded version of the poem played on pick as stealing, that would show that the interpretation did occur. The Alexandra Daily Gazette (Virginia), April 27, 1812, has this poem, titled "The Feast":

Good Peter Porter pick'd a peck of pepper. His food to season, for his guests were sick; If for six month's he did the same each day, How many pecks of pepper did Peter Porter pick?

The less compact usage adds more context. Peter picks a peck of pepper (a quarter-bushel) each day to season food for his guests. There is no sign that he stole it, or in the hypothetical he'd have a terribly inattentive victim.

If an essay applied the reading of pick as theft to the poem, that might also be convincing. I found something in Sentinel of the Valley (May 23, 1844), where in an entry titled "Levity" the author offers an essay on the poetic and narrative qualities of the rhyme. The essay is tongue-in-cheek, but nonetheless offers a window in how Peter's actions are understood:

No one can retain even a momentary doubt of Peter Piper's diligence, industry, and application, and no one but must regret, that talents so conspicuous were devoted to the occupation of picking pepper, rather than writing commentaries upon Shakespere.

Peter is industrious, not a thief. The essay goes on in this way with considerable bombast, but the author never interprets pick as theft. Even when he mulls over the question of whether Peter Piper picked the pepper (overreading into the word "if"), the question is only whether he picked it or not, not whether he gathered it or whether he stole it.

Other usages of pick(ed) a peck support that, e.g.,

Mrs. Carry of Mabaska county, aged 82 years, walked a mile and a half to the celebration on the Fourth, walked home at the conclusion of the exercise, and then picked a peck of beans, and took them to market before supper! (Sioux City Register, July 22, 1865)

I saw a man and boy just returned from the woods - one had picked a peck of walnuts, and the other had picked a patridge [...] (Litchfield Enquirer, November 7, 1867).

The reading of pick as steal is tempting, especially after the rhyme changes to pickled peppers and the question turns to where the peck is. Perhaps we are trying to find contraband! However, I could find no evidence to show that people read the rhyme or pick a peck that way.

4
  • Funny, I've literally never read this poem any other way. Jan 7 at 14:31
  • 5
    I find it... confusing, I guess, that you’d write an answer that begins with “Is there any evidence to suggest that readers understood pick in the rhyme as steal? No,” when an existing (and well-regarded) answer includes considerable evidence that it might have been. It’s reasonable to cast doubt on that evidence, but to just assert it doesn’t exist at all when it clearly does is simply inaccurate.
    – KRyan
    Jan 7 at 16:41
  • @KRyan I think TaliesinMerlin makes a strong case that by the mid-19th century, the verb pick, meaning harvesting, had definitely taken over filching and its older accomplice, stealing. It would be interesting to know whether that was also true in the late 1700s.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 8 at 9:42
  • Notes: the reference in the Litchfield Enquirer is in column 4, about a quarter of the way down, two paragraphs above the heading "WILCOTTVILLE". The original spells the bird "paRtridge" (was curious if you made a typo or if they spelled it differently then). Interestingly, they spell "raccoon" with one 'c': "racoon", a spelling I hadn't seen before, but Merriam-Webster includes as "less common". The Sioux City reference is column 4, paragraph 8. The Sentinel reference is basically the first 2.5 columns, with specific quotes at the end of column 1. Alexandra reference is the first paragraph.
    – MichaelS
    Jan 9 at 11:55
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Were capsicum peppers grown in England?

Yes.

The Gardener's Dictionary: Containing the Methods of Cultivating the Garden, Conservatory and Vineyard.Volume 1 By Philip Miller · 1735 has quite a bit on capsicums - a useful unambiguous name. It also refers to them as "Guiney Peppers" ("Guinea" in modern spelling)

The were pickled too.

Under the name "Guinea Pepper" I can find a mention that they were pickled as early as 1722, in Botanicum Officinale Or a Compendious Herbal Giving an Account of All Such Plants ... By Joseph Miller · 1722, which says "long, round taper Pods, of a green Colour at firſt, but when ripe of a lively ſhining-red... This Fruit is of a hot, fiery, biting Taſte, hotter than the ſtrongeſt Pepper" so it's pretty clear we're talking about chillies. It then say "Guinea Pepper is more uſed as a Sauce, and in Pickle , than in Phyſick... being order'd diveſe Ways, either green or ripe, pickled or rub'd to powder".

So Peter Piper's pickled peppers could well have been similar to the jalapenos I like on pizza, but a peck would keep me going for a lifetime. What's a little odd - poetic licence I assume - is that a peck was a measure of dry volume and pickles are inherently wet.

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  • While I had to retype the quotes (long s vs f break even Google's OCR), the capitals one nouns were in the the original. For more history on this see What were the rules for capitalising nouns in the 17th and 18th centuries?
    – Chris H
    Jan 7 at 13:23
  • The Fruit of these Plants tho at present of no great Use in England, yet affords one of the wholesomest Pickles in the World if they are gather'd young before their Skins grow tough.” Does this mean that capsicums were not able to be cultivated in conservatories (greenhouses) in England? It's unclear. Perhaps these peppers were imported from the West Indies? “The Inhabitants of the West Indies eat great Quantities of this Fruit raw, not only while it is green, but also when it is fully ripe at which time it is so very acrid”;…
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 7 at 13:41
  • @Mari-LouA If I was exporting chillies by sailing ship I'd either dry or pickle them first, so that's an option. They wouldn't keep otherwise. One of the books I was looking at for this answer specifically discussed imported pickled capers (alphabetically close to capsicum so I spotted it by chance) demonstrating that the method was used...
    – Chris H
    Jan 7 at 13:48
  • ...But trusting a gardener on culinary instructions isn't always a good idea. I've got Hessayon's Vegetable and Herb Expert (modern) at home and his view on garlic is similar to Miller on chillies: "do as the continentals" I believe is his phrase when referring to actually eating it; otherwise he suggests rubbing it on a salad bowl to impart a subtle flavour. I reckon Miller didn't like them ("acrid" - though if you dry them in the oven without opening all your windows that might apply)
    – Chris H
    Jan 7 at 13:50
4
+50

This is an answer in-the-making, but starting with origin . . .

The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, in its entry for Peter Piper’s Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation (a book of tonguetwisters first published by John Harris in 1813), says:

[The book] contained a tonguetwister for each letter of the alphabet, on the model of ‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper’, which first appeared in print in this book (without the word ‘pickled’), though it was known in nurseries at least one generation earlier.

The piece appears in the book as:

Peter Piper pick’d a Peck of Pepper,
Did Peter Piper pick a Peck of Pepper?
If Peter Piper pick’d a Peck of Pepper,
Where’s the Peck of Pepper Peter Piper pick’d?

All the tonguetwisters therein follow the exact same pattern, employing five alliterative words for each letter of the alphabet. Also note that, in addition to pickled being absent, pepper is singular.

Page from original publication of Peter Piper’s Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation
Image source: Sotheby’s

It seems to have appeared in print prior to 1813, though: In Literary Leisure; Or, The Recreations of Solomon Saunter, Esq, published in 1802, a satirical literary essay dated November 14, 1799 is introduced with:

I was led into this vein of thought by hearing a little boy, a nephew of mine, repeat a small composition, which was in my younger days a particular favourite with me.

And later we find the composition:

Peter Piper pick’d a peck of pepper,
If Peter Piper pick’d a peck of pepper,
Where’s the peck of pepper Peter Piper pick’d?

And still later a musing by the author:

A peck of pepper Peter Piper pick’d.
If a peck of pepper Peter Piper pick’d,
Where’s the Peck of Pepper Peter Piper pick’d?

This would place the origin at least as far back as 1775.

In any case, all evidence points to the fact that it originated in England, not the Americas, without pickled and without an s.

That makes genus Capsicum unlikely, but not impossible (more later).

The earliest version containing pickled and peppers (plural) that surfaces in print is in 1823, in Koningsmarke, the Long Finne by American author James Kirke Paulding (1778-1860):

Peter Piper pick'd a peck of pickled peppers.
Where is the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper pick’d?
Source: Koningsmarke, the Long Finne

Note that where is is spelled out rather than contracted.

Paulding is credited with coining that tonguetwister.
Sources:
Encyclopædia Britannica (1885)
Green-Wood cemetery
Google search "James Kirke Paulding" "Peter Piper"

. . .

Did pick’d mean stolen back then? The illustrator, for one, apparently did not perceive it that way. Peter doesn’t look like he’s trying to get away with anything, unlike Neddy Noodle, who nipp’d his neighbor’s nutmegs:

Neddy Noodle nipp’s his neighbor’s nutmegs

Back soon. To come:

  • After looking at usage in the OED and other docs, I don’t think pick is very viable for steal here.

  • Did the later insertion of pickle change the perceived genus? Can pickled pepper in the singular refer to Capsicum? Was genus Piper (peppercorn) brined back then? Did pickle have meanings beyond the sense of brined?

  • After further research (will elaborate later), I’m inclined to let go of the Peter Poivre post-hoc story. This description in The Dark Side of Nutmeg is vivid and solid, but the author does seem to stop short of calling it fact:

Surely you know that Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. What you may not know is that “Peter Piper” is the Anglicized version of Pierre Poivre (literally translated “Peter Pepper”), a one-armed French horticulturalist and pirate in the mid-1700’s. Back then, the term “pepper” could be applied to any spice nut, and when shipping precious nutmeg peppers, the Dutch rubbed them with lime so that the seeds could not germinate if they were planted. Since Pierre would raid Dutch stores of spices and plants to furnish his botanical garden in the Seychelles, you could say with some probability that, on at least one occasion, Pierre Poivre stole half a bushel of limed nutmegs.

  • Was lime (calcium oxide — not citrus juice) ever applied to peppercorns to preserve them or prevent germination (like it was with nutmegs)?
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  • 1
    +1 (ages ago) for finding the older version with the singular pepper. Bravo! I've seen the same illustration before on Wikipedia, which was in a more recent American publication. It seems strange that the main character is not seen gathering peppers; perhaps the illustrator was showing where the peppers ended up, in a cooking pot(?). It's also telling that the boy is obviously from a well-to-do family, judging by his clothes.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 8 at 12:15
  • The 1799 text has the following lines: Good here is the fimple fact related; and though an enquiring mind may immediately busy itself in calculating how many peppercorns would go to fill a peck measure, or perhaps some malevolent cynic would ask, with a sneer, whether Peter Piper had employed himself upon pepper ground, or whole black or white, and so forth the candid reader…
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 9 at 18:15
  • So the earliest instance where the peppers were pickled was NOT 1813 but instead 1823.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 13 at 13:43
3

From the wbsite, "Words for Life"

“Peter Piper” is a popular tongue twister nursery rhyme first published anonymously in John Harris' Peter Piper's Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation in 1813.

John Harris was an English publisher.

There is a copy of a later American publication of the book available at Project Gutenberg https://www.gutenberg.org/files/25027/25027-h/25027-h.htm

Peter Piper and the peppers were English.

If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, is there any evidence to suggest that children or readers in the 19th century would have understood Peter was a thief?

Probably, there were enough pickpockets about.

What type of peppers were pickled in 18th and 19th century England? I don't think Capsicum peppers were ever grown there.

They were pickled peppers - a common means of shipping them from their origins.

4
  • Yes, (hot) pickled peppers were produced in the West Indies and imported to England. I think they were used right from the bottle as a kind of hot sauce or side.
    – DjinTonic
    Jan 6 at 15:29
  • I'm not so sure the tongue twister did originate in England. Peppers were and still are grown in the US, so eating pickled peppers would be more familiar to American children, and the measurement "peck" I think was more commonly used in the US than in England, but it's only an idea of mine. What is the date of the later American publication, my browser won't allow me to open the page. (I have an old Mac OS)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 6 at 15:30
  • Pickpocketer Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
    – Joachim
    Jan 6 at 15:39
  • Pickpocketer Peter Piper picked a pretty peck of purloined pickled peppers.
    – DjinTonic
    Jan 6 at 15:42
1

The basically identical recipe for (green) pickled peppers appeared a few years later in The London Journal (1863):

PICKLED PEPPERS—Take two dozen large size garden peppers (green); slit them carefully on the side; take out the pulp; put on a tablespoonful of salt, and cover them with boiling water every morning for nine days; then fill them with cabbage cut fine, and a little salt. Sew them up and lay them in vinegar.

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  • It's the same recipe that I posted as a snippet taken from The Valley Farmer printed in 1854.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 6 at 14:53
  • 1
    Yes, I said so, but it was published in England, so I assume green peppers were available to cooks. You said all the 19th century recipes you found were American and asked what kinds of peppers were available in England.
    – DjinTonic
    Jan 6 at 14:59
  • I only searched until 1860.... as the tongue twister was first published in London in 1813, which I thought odd because the vegetable/fruit/berry as well as not being native to England, I imagine it must have been a challenge to cultivate the plant in the late 18th and early 19th century.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 6 at 15:04
  • 2
    @Mari-LouA the victorians did like to cultivate exotic plants though - rich houses often had orangeries, and even pineapples were grown in heated greenhouses. Whether that trend started early enough to help here is another question
    – Chris H
    Jan 6 at 20:33
  • @Mari-LouA Also chillies made it back to Europe not long after the C15th voyages - Columbus found the wrong spice on the wrong continent according to this article. Wikipedia cites this book for a similar claim
    – Chris H
    Jan 7 at 12:55

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