Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Pie In The Sky

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 23, 2016

Whenever people talk about pie in the sky they’re talking about how unlikely something is apt to be.  It’s a wish, an empty promise, a pleasant daydream, a prospect of future happiness that will go unfulfilled. Pie in the sky is something that is lovely to consider but not realistic to anticipate coming to fruition.

Today is the day the UK votes on whether to stay in the European Union.  There have been countless articles and interviews in the media discussing the pros and cons with no clear answer arrived at.

On one week ago, on June 15, 2016 the Daily Telegraph shared a report that the former Conservative shadow chief secretary to the Treasury said that only 12% of UK insurance exports were to the EU with the majority of insurance exports going to North American and Asia.  In his opinion, leaving the EU was the way to go.  The powers-that-be at the Association of British Insurers (ABI) saw things differently.

ABI’s director of regulation Hugh Savill said he suggestion that UK insurers could do business without taking account of European regulation was “pie in the sky.”

Baseball is one of those sports that everyone seems to love regardless of whether you’re a fanatic about it.  Back in 1984, Tom Monaghan, then owner of Domino’s Pizza (the largest privately held restaurant chain in the world at the time), owned the Detroit Tigers.  For him, it was a dream come true.

He had lived a difficult childhood, losing his father at 4, being placed in an orphanage by his mother at 6, and striking out on his own at age 12.  He bought a pizza shop at age 23 (with help from his slightly older brother who worked as a postman), and never looked back.  The article written by Jack Friedman and published in People magazine on May 6, 1984 was titled, “Owning The Detroit Tigers Is No Longer Pie In The Sky For Pizza King Tom Monaghan.”

Volume 180 of The Fortnightly magazine published in 1953 also used the expression in an  article about one of Britain’s British historian and political scientists, Professor Hugh Seton-Watson (15 February 1916 – 19 December 1984).  Professor Seton-Watson had used the expression in one of his articles.

An extraordinary remark (among other extraordinary remarks) is made by Professor Hugh Seton-Watson in his article “Moscow and the West” in the September number of The Fortnightly.  It is that the new promises of a speed-up in supplying consumers’ goods and housing “will soon be relegated” to the status of “pie in the sky.”  This statement is allegedly based on “the experience of many previous promises.”

INTERESTING NOTE 1:  Professor Seton-Watson was one of the two sons of British political activist and historian Robert William Seton-Watson (20 August 1879 – Skye, 25 July 1951).  R.W. Seton-Watson was also known by his pseudonym, Scotus Viator.

Interestingly enough, both the Harvard Bulletins in Education (1926) and the Infantry Journal (1927) published by the United States Infantry Association along with other publications at the time, quoted a song that had a scoffing attitude towards believing in the future.  It was identified as one of the I.W.W. songs, where the chorus is as follows:

You will eat bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die (that’s a lie).

INTERESTING NOTE 2:  The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was a group of nomadic proletarians from the west coast of the U.S.  The group was started by Swedish immigrant, Joel Emmanuel Hägglund (later known as Joe Hill) who arrived in American in October 1902.  His songs oftentimes ridiculed religion and non-union workers.

INTERESTING NOTE 3:  Joe Hill was arrested, charged, and found guilty of the murders of John Morrison, owner of Morrison Grocery, and his son Arling on the night of January 10, 1914 in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was executed by firing squad inside the walls of the Utah state penitentiary on November 19, 1915.  He maintained he was innocent right up to his death.

Joel Emmanuel Hägglund aka Joe Hill (7 October 1879 – 19 November 1915) wrote his song, “The Preacher and the Slave” in 1906 as a parody of the popular hymn from 1868, “In The Sweet By And By” which was originally known as “There’s A Land That Is Fairer Than Day.”

Pie In The Sky_Parodied Hymn
It was published in the fourth printed edition of the Industrial Workers of the World songbook “Little Red Songbook” on July 6, 1911 under the title of “Long Haired Preachers” where it was credited to F. B. Brechler.  It was credited to F.B. Brechler in the 1912 edition, and then credited to Joe Hill in the 1913 edition.  It has been suggested that F.B. Brechler may have been a pseudonym used by Joe Hill.

INTERESTING NOTE 4:  The first edition of the “Little Red Songbook” was published in 1904 with the slogan, “To fan the flames of discontent.”

There is no earlier reference to pie in the sky, and so Idiomation pegs this idiom to 1906 courtesy of Joe Hill.  In the meantime, enjoy this rendition of Joe Hill’s song.

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