Q Can you tell me about the word “piecemeal”? I can understand “oatmeal” and “corn meal,” since you might have those for part of a meal. But what does doing something one piece at a time have to do with “meal”? – N.A., St. Joseph, Mo.

A: Your initial premise about the origin of “meal” is causing your confusion. It may be natural to suppose that the “meal” of “three meals a day” has some relation to the “meal” of “oatmeal,” “corn meal,” or any other ground meal, since the words all pertain to food, but in fact they are unrelated.

The “meal” of “ground meal” is descended from Old English “melu,” a word akin to Old High German “malan,” “to grind,” as well as to Latin “molere,” also meaning “to grind.” Derived from “molere” is Latin “molina,” which means “mill” and is the ultimate source of the English noun and verb “mill.”

In fact, it is the “meal” of “piecemeal” that is related to breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The “meal” of both “piecemeal” and “three meals a day” is from Old English “mael” or “mel,” meaning “measure,” “appointed time,” or “mealtime.” It is akin to Old High German “mal,” meaning “time,” and much more distantly to Latin “metiri,” “to measure.” As “mel” became “meel” in Middle English, the word became more closely associated with food than with time or measurement.

The modern senses and spellings were established by the end of the 17th century. A remnant of the older meaning of “meal” can be seen in “piecemeal,” where “-meal” is a suffix having the sense “by a specified portion or measure at a time.”

This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition.


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