Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

More Pizza and Pita—Yum!

Sally Capotosto, who chats with both Dr. Goodword and Joe Pastry (one of my wife’s favorites, too) wrote me the following today:

“This week Joe is making pita bread and once again touched upon the similarities of the words pita and pizza. Yum! YumSo, I dutifully commented using your history, and this is what Joe said back: “Oh yes Sally, I got it. The trouble with this citation is that it only traces the history of the word pizza back to its first occurrence in print in Italy. The Langobards, better known as the Lombards, were a Germanic tribe that moved down into Italy from Northwest Germany in about A.D. 100 (where they caused all kinds of mayhem). That was a minimum of 700 years after the arrival of the Greeks, their flat breads, and their word pitta. By A.D. 100 versions of the word pitta were already in use all around the Mediterranean. The Lombards almost certainly picked this word up from the locals after they got there.”

Joe and Sally were talking about our Good Word, pizza, of August 3rd. The problem with Joe’s etymology is that pitta in Classical Greek meant “tar, pitch”, the stuff used to make jars and ships waterproof and not “bread”. The Greek words for bread were sitos and artos; unleavened bread was azumos. There may have been another word for flat bread but it does not appear in any Greek writing that has been preserved.

The word is found in all modern languages around the Mediterranean but not in any ancient languages the predate Langobardian that we have any record of.

Here is what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about the origin of pita:

“Various ancient Greek etymons have been suggested, but the word appears to be of fairly recent appearance in Greek (as is suggested by the variable spelling); also, a plausible transmission from ancient Greek into the various other modern languages is difficult to establish. Modern Hebrew pitth is written as if descended from an Aramaic form (cf. Old Western Aramaic pitt, Eastern Aramaic pitt, related to Palestinian colloquial Arabic fatte “crumb, piece of bread”) but there is no continuity between them. The Arabic word for this type of bread is kimj ([from] Persian kumj). Turkish pide (1890) is a loanword, prob[ably from] Greek.”

“An ultimate origin in Germanic has been suggested by G. Princi Braccini (Archivio Glottologico Italiano 64 (1979 ) 42-89), perh[aps from] an unattested Gothic *bita, cognate with Old High German bizzo “bite, morsel, lump, cake made of flour” (see PIZZA n.), whence the word spread first into Rhaeto-Romance and the languages of the western Balkans, and then beyond, cf. Romansh (Engadine) petta, Ladin (Ampezzano) peta, Friulian peta, all in sense “thin flat bread”, post-classical Latin petta, a kind of bread or flat cake (1249, 1297 in Friulian sources), Albanian petë thin layer of dough or pastry crust, Vlach pit pie, tart, Romanian regional pit “bread”, Hungarian pite “pie, tart” (1598). . . . An alternative theory has been proposed by J. Kramer (Balkan-Archiv 14-15 (1990 ) 220-31) who sees the word as ult[imately] of Illyrian origin.”

My source was an old colleague, Professor Martin Maiden of Oxford in his delightful article “Pizza is a German(ic) Word!” which he wrote for me when I was at He admits that there is a controversy around the word, the ancestor is an unattested presumed word. However, there is no question but that the word is likely to have existed because of the Germanic ancestors of English bite–all Germanic languages have one.

Not only do we not have a likely candidate for an ancestor for pita in other Mediterranean languages, none of them have a phonologically and semantically similar word that pita might be a paronym or derivation of. So, if the word came from Greek, which related word was it derived from? There are none. Hebrew pat “loaf” might work but a loaf is almost the opposite of flat bread and we have no evidence that it existed in any form of Hebrew other than Modern Hebrew.

So, Joe Pastry and Dr. Goodword seem to be named for what each does best. I find that somehow comforting.

4 Responses to “More Pizza and Pita—Yum!”

  1. Joe Pastry Says:

    Hey Dr.! Just so you know I don’t totally make htis stuff up, I wanted to leave you with my original source, from Alan Davidson writing in the Oxford Companion to Food. It goes:

    “The name has a common origin with pizza. In the early centuries of our era, the traditional Greek word for a thin flat bread or cake, plakous, had become the name of a thicker cake. The new word that came into use for flat bread was pitta, literally pitch, doubtless because pine pitch naturally forms flat layers which many languages compare to cakes or breads (English, cakes of pitch; French, pains de poix). The word spread to S. Italy as the name of a thin bread. In N. Italian dialects pitta became pizza, now known primarily as the bearer of savoury toppings but essentially still a flat bread. Ironically, in Greece the word pitta eventually followed exactly in the footsteps of the word plakous, which it had replaced, becoming the name of a thick cake.”

    I don’t know what the real scholarship is here, but it seems unlikely to me that he’d refer to all these different terms for flatbreads and thick cakes if he wasn’t drawing on some sort of scholarly source.

    Not at all a linguist,

    – Joe

  2. rbeard Says:

    Later, Joe added:

    I put the relevant Davidson excerpt up as a comment on the Goodword blog a little while ago, but it’s also in the longer post on our back-and-forth that’s at the top of Joe Pastry right now. I of course have no business entering into a debate on these terms. It’d be nice if Davidson had put HIS sources down in his piece on the subject, but alas he didn’t. Forgive me for being so argumentative on the subject, I’m married to a language PhD, so I’m used to at least trying to hold my end up!

    Thanks again for your time and interest Robert. Very nice to meet someone of your obvious erudition and expertise. I contrasts vividly with my own lack thereof.


    Sorry about the comment at my blog. I have to approve each comment and for every well-intended one I get 10 pieces of spam.

    David apparently got his information from the Wikipedia, filled as it is with what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”, truth by ballot ( The last line of its etymology is:

    “An alternative etymology traces the word to a cognate for pine pitch, which form flat layers that may resemble pita bread, and may thereby share an origin with pizza (Italian, “pie”).

    I don’t see the point about tar forming flat layers. So does water and wine in that sense of “flat”. Who would think of an analogy between tar and bread?

    We are, of course, speculating. We have no hard evidence, so we have to use the best available linguistic evidence and make an educated guess. Most Romance language etymologists think the Lombard origin is the best of those.

    As for erudition and expertise–you should(n’t) taste my pastries.


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