I lately learned of an interesting little episode in bureaucracy thanks to torontoist.com. At Historicist: The Toronto Patty Wars, I found out that in 1985, federal food inspectors from the Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs informed sellers of Jamaican beef patties in Toronto that they absolutely could not sell their products under that name.
The inspectors, you see, armed with the federal definition of a beef patty as consisting of only meat, salt, seasonings, and flavour enhancers, and definitely nothing made from grain products, were shocked, appalled, dismayed, etc., to discover that these so-called “beef patties” actually had quite a lot of flour and similar things in them!
Well, of course they did. A Jamaican beef patty is somewhat like an empanada or a Cornish pasty: it has a pastry shell inside which is ground, seasoned meat. And they had been sold in Toronto under the name beef patties since the 1960s (and in Jamaica long before that). So what’s the beef?
In the end, the vendors were allowed to continue calling their products patties, but they could not call them beef patties. Which of course means that if you sell Jamaican patties some of which have beef and some of which have other fillings, you have to use a more convoluted syntax to designate them.
This is clearly a case of putting the cart before the horse, and it’s also a great example of the grand old language game of presenting inferior understanding as superior understanding. The government knew of only one kind of patty, and made its narrow definition on the basis of that, and when it was confronted with other patties, it insisted they could not be patties because they did not fit its definition. This is perhaps the most classic example of a Procrustean bed I have ever seen in real life. It just goes to show how sometimes (often, in fact) pat answers are flat wrong.
The greatest irony of all in this is that the Caribbean sense of patty, “small pie or pastry”, predates the “flattened cake of ground or minced food” sense… by nearly 250 years.
The word patty, and its sibling pasty (pronounced like past with an /i/ on the end), come from an older sense of French pâté, which in turn comes from pâte, which is cognate with pasta and pastry and comes ultimately from Greek παστη pasté, “paste” or “barley porridge”. The English sense, in use by 1660, was first a meat pie. The meaning transferred to the filling – specifically formed and shaped as a disc – by the early 20th century.
And now what do we think when we hear patty? Well, if it’s beef patty and we’re not used to Caribbean food, we’ll think of a hamburger. But if we hear the word patty by itself (and we don’t think we’re hearing paddy as in rice paddy), we’re probably going to think of the female name. We might think of particular people, real or fictional, who have had that name. I’m put in mind of a rather winsome, introverted girl I knew I high school, for instance. (Thanks to Facebook, I know that she is now a university professor.) But I’m also put in mind of Peppermint Patty from Peanuts (a.k.a. Charlie Brown comics), singer Patti Smith, and the song “Cow Patti” by Jim Stafford – and of course cow patties, something I saw many of up close and personal when I was growing up in Alberta. And there are many males also called Patty (or Paddy), short for Patrick (or Pádraig).
You might also think of patty cake (also known as pat-a-cake) and the act of patting something and perhaps even that charming little Christmas song with the line “tu-re-lu-re-lu, pat-a-pat-a-pan.” And perhaps you’ll be put in mind of putty or petty or pretty or potty or pity or maybe even (in the spirit of the Christmas song) piety. It just has such a pleasing little percussivity to it, kind of like the little pats with which one may form a hamburger patty. (That word pat, by the way, most likely is imitative in origin – your hand goes “pat, pat, pat”, so that’s that.)