How ‘magpiety’ was invented… and reinvented.

A blend of magpie and piety, the word magpiety was originally invented by the English poet and humorist Thomas Hood (1799-1845) to denote talkativeness, garrulity, especially on religious or moral topics and affected piety.

This author first used the word in Jarvis and Mrs. Cope, published in The New Sporting Magazine of March 1832; the poem thus begins:


A decidedly serious Ballad.

In Bunhill Row, some years ago,
There liv’d one Mrs. Cope;
A pious woman she was call’d,
As Pius as a Pope.

Not pious in its proper sense,
But chatt’ring like a bird,
Of sin and grace—in such a case
Mag-piety’s the word.

He used the word again in 1841 about a lady who had annoyed him by her unasked obtrusion of her religious opinions upon him. In Memorials of Thomas Hood (1860), his daughter, the author Frances Freeling Broderip (1830-78), explained that the lady in question

wrote him a most unjustifiable attack on his writings and religious opinions. She enquired with a kind of grim satisfaction what good his “Whims and Oddities” would do his soul? and how he would recall his levities in literature upon his death-bed? My father was pretty well used to attacks of this sort, but this was really going a little too far, and accordingly she received a copy of the following, which he ever after entitled “My Tract.”

This is a passage from My Tract:

My humble works have flowed from my heart, as well as my head, and, whatever their errors, are such as I have been able to contemplate with composure, when, more than once, the Destroyer assumed almost a visible presence. For I have stood several times in that serious extremity both by land and sea […].
It has pleased you to picture me occasionally in such extremities as those just alluded to,—and, no doubt, with regret that you could not, Saint-like, beset my couch, to try spiritual experiments on my soul, and enjoy its excruciations, as certain brutal anatomists have gloated on the last agonies of mutilated dogs and rabbits. But we will now turn, if you please, from my death-bed to your own—supposing you to be lying there at that awful crisis, which reveals the depravity of the human heart as distinctly as the mortality of the human frame! And now, on that terrible, narrow isthmus between the past and the future, just imagine yourself appealing to your conscience for answers to such solemn questions as follow. And first, whether your extreme devotion has been affected or sincere,—unobtrusive or ostentatious,—humble to your Creator, but arrogant to His creatures,—in short, Piety or Mag-piety? Whether your professed love for your species has been active and fruitful, or only that flatulent charity, which evaporates upwards in wind, and catechises the hungry, and preaches to the naked? And finally, how far, in meddling with the spiritual concerns of your neighbours, you have neglected your own; and, consequently, what you may have to dread from that Hell and its fires, which you have so often amused yourself with letting off at a poor Sinner,—just as a boy would squib a Guy?

The Canadian poet, academic and diplomat Peter Dale Scott (born 1929) independently recreated the word when he translated with the Polish poet, prose writer, translator, diplomat and Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) a poem by the latter author:


The same and not quite the same, I walked through oak forests
Amazed that my Muse, Mnemosyne,
Has in no way diminished my amazement.
A magpie was screeching and I said: Magpiety?
What is magpiety? I shall never achieve
A magpie heart, a hairy nostril over the beak, a flight
That always renews just when coming down,
And so I shall never comprehend magpiety.
If however magpiety does not exist
My nature does not exist either.
Who would have guessed that, centuries later,
I would invent the question of universals?

Montgeran, 1958

from King Popiel and Other Poems (1962)

(The information about the translation of this poem is from The Book Haven – Cynthia Haven’s blog for the written word – Stanford University.)

The American poet Philip Levine (1928-2015) indicated that he had borrowed from Czesław Miłosz the titular word in Magpiety, a poem first published in The Atlantic Monthly of November 1994.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.