Teaching plurals was a regular part of my ESL classes in Japan. English language learners have to memorize singular and plural forms and how to properly use them, such as “I got my hair cut” and not “I got my hairs cut,” or “I went to a shoe shop” as opposed to a “shoes shop.”
No less than the myriad rules for making nouns plural, we also have to contend with spelling variants, irregular nouns, word imports, counters, and archaic forms — issues that drive even native English speakers mad! In a past Fun Facts About English post I gave examples of often mistaken and just plain confusing plurals. In this post, I’d like to focus on one particular case: peas.
When in elementary school, my siblings and I regularly came home for lunch. One day, to our surprise, Dad was home and, double surprise, had fixed us all lunch! He served up grilled cheese sandwiches (yea!) and a green soup he called “pea soup.” A hue and cry went up among us and we demanded he tell us what kind of soup it really was. Of course, none of us were going to be fooled into believing “pee soup” was a real thing! Dad just kept laughing at us. Finally, he brought out the empty Campbell’s Soup can and showed us Pea Soup written on the can. We all breathed a sigh of relief… sort of. We still thought it was super weirdo soup. Dad sure had a good time feeding the kids that day and a clear example of the rule for attributive nouns was fixed in my memory.
Some may remember a childhood rhyme called Pease Porridge Hot:
Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old;
Some like it hot, some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot, nine days old.
If pease porridge is made with peas, why isn’t it called “pea” porridge? We don’t say ‘beans soup’ or ‘carrots juice.’ Is it just a British thing? Are pea dishes avoided in polite company because of the homonym? This is the kind of issue that would throw a wrench in my English lessons!
Here’s the answer:
Peasen is the archaic word for that member of the legume family we know today as peas. Peasen is plural and the singular is pease. Because pease ends with a /z/ sound and the seeds of the plant appear countable, pease was often mistaken for and reinterpreted as the plural form. Over time, this lead to the back-formation of a new singular: pea.
So, pease porridge, or pease pudding, as it’s sometimes called, maintains the archaic but correct singular spelling and pronunciation for a dish that is still enjoyed in England today. Here in the U.S., I’ve eschewed my finicky ways and embrace just about any kind of soup, even one made with peas.
If you enjoyed this post, you might be interested in reading about the lingual conga line of stacked adjectives, what happens when words rebracket over time, or the headache of writing headlines for newspapers!