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Until recently, I had assumed that peck denoted a small quantity or size.

  • (noun) to give someone a peck is to kiss them lightly on their cheek.
  • (noun) Lexico says that peck was slang for food
  • (adjective) to be a little (a bit) peckish is the need to fill that empty feeling in your stomach. You are not starving or ravenous just ‘slightly hungry’.
  • (verb) to peck at your food is when you are fussy or don't feel like eating the food in front of you. Generally, a person who pecks at the dinner table, does not clean their plate.
  • (verb) to peck at something is to make a small hole by piercing or striking something. For example, hens peck around in the backyard or use their small beaks to defend themselves against predators.

So generally speaking, I had the impression that “a peck” was, by its very nature, small. When I was growing up in the UK, I knew the existence of pre-decimal and unit measurements such as guineas, shillings, yards, pints, stones, pounds and ounces but never did I hear of something weighing a peck. When Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers my child-self believed he plucked out two or three peppers preserved in vinegar.

Then I chanced upon this unfamiliar proverb

You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die.

I discovered that the noun peck is an imperial measurement of weight, defined as a quarter of a bushel, the equivalent of two dry gallons or 16 dry pints. In metric that's roughly equivalent to the volume of 9 litres or 9 kilos in dry weight.

The Free Dictionary says the proverb means that you literally have to ingest a large quantity of dirt/soil/earth before you actually risk your losing life.

Eating a small amount of dirty food or being briefly exposed to slightly unsanitary conditions won't be harmful to one in the long run.

McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs states the following:

No one can escape eating a certain amount of dirt on his or her food.; Everyone must endure a number of unpleasant things in his or her lifetime. (Often said to console someone who has eaten some dirt or had to endure something unpleasant.

Digging further, what I thought was an American proverb appears to be British in origin. In Jonathan Swift's “Polite conversation in Three Dialogues”, printed in 1738, Lady Answ reassures her friend

Neverout: ‘Why then, here’s ſome Dirt in my Tea-Cup.’
Miss: ‘Come, come; the more there's in't, the more there's on't.’
Lady Answ: ‘Poh! you must eat a Peck of Dirt before you dye.’

Etymonline says the verbal form can be traced back to c. 1300, pekken, of a bird, "to strike at (something) with the beak," possibly a variant of picken, or in part from Middle Low German pekken "to peck with the beak."

However, it appears that the noun "peck" was not originally a unit of measurement but was used colloquially to mean "a great deal" (a peck of troubles (1704), etc.). Etymonline propounds it is related to Anglo-Norman French pek, picot and dates it back to the late 13th century, but admits its true origins are unknown.

It seems quite incredible that something so small as the action of a bird pecking could also mean a weight measurement of 16 dry pints. Yet the two words are identical, and Etymonline says the origins of the second are unknown.

Question

  1. How do we know that the verb and the two noun forms are not derived from the same source? How does a lexicographer establish that these these terms grew independently from one another? Were there spelling differences in the 13th and 14th century that helped differentiate the two uses. That is small (e.g. a peck on the cheek, to peck a hole etc.) versus something so heavy that it weighs two gallons (both dry and liquid)?
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It seems that, although the post spends a lot of time discussing the case of peck, your central question amounts to "How do linguists do what they do?" How do they tease apart the threads connecting meaning to words and trace them back through the centuries, untangling the snarls of near-homonyms and cognates, all the while dealing with fluid spellings, shifting cultural boundaries, oral traditions, and scant documentation?

Well (with the disclaimer that I'm not one): they do their best. They find all the historical uses that are (or might be?) relevant. To tell the difference between homonyms, they use context just as we all do when stumbling around in the dark trying to parse intended meanings. If Peter Piper "picked a peck," without further context, perhaps peck would just be the noun form of the verb, like "struck a strike." Fortunately, there is usually more to go on, and like all good historians, they can compare sources against each other (though perhaps disagreeing about the conclusions).

If you're curious about etymology, it's a good idea to consult a reference dedicated to etymology. Take this page on the various forms of peck. Note how often "possibly" or "probably" are used, and that the noun form is "of unknown origin." In other words, often, we don't know. Not everything, anyway, and not for sure. But as you see, people make guesses: Maybe peck came from French, or maybe French borrowed it from English.

Sure, some etymologies are clear, obvious, and cut-and-dried. But often, in any discipline that depends on the historical record, the answer to "how do we know for sure" is "we don't."

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