As with many words, I distinctly recall the first time I heard “peckish.” The student group I was leading on a British trip in the mid-1990s was on a touring bus (which I was learning to call a “coach”), and the tour guide said there would be cafes in the next town we’d stop in, “in case you’re feeling peckish.” From the context I concluded that it meant a little hungry—that is, less than “starving” or “famished”—and so it does.
The OED reveals that the term popped up in Britain as early as 1714. All the pre-1988 OED citations are British, including my favorite, from P.G. Wodehouse in 1936: “Not since the distant days of my first private school had I been conscious of such a devastating hunger. Peckish is not the word. I felt like a homeless tapeworm.” A notable use came in Monty Python’s “Cheese Shop” sketch from 1972:
Owner: What can I do for you, Sir?
Customer: Well, I was, uh, sitting in the public library on Thurmon Street just now, skimming through Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole, and I suddenly came over all peckish.
O: Peckish, sir?
C: ‘Ee I were all ‘ungry-like!
However, as befitting its pre-Revolutionary origin, the word did migrate to the U.S.; like “reckon,” it appears to have survived mainly in Western or rural settings. The Dictionary of American Regional English quotes a line from The Clockmaker (1838) by the Nova Scotia author Thomas Haliburton: “I don’t care if I stop and breakfast with you, for I feel considerable peckish this morning.” Its first appearance in the New York Times came in an 1872 Western tale, where a character says, “All hands got to be pretty peckish.” And the word shows up in an 1899 dictionary of Virginia “Folk-Speech,” defined as “Inclined to eat, somewhat hungry.”
The Coen brothers may or may not have been aware of this when they wrote the script for O Brother, Where Art Thou, their 2000 backwoods Depression-era version of The Odyssey. Big Dan Teague, the character played by John Goodman, says, “Thank you boys for throwin’ in that fricassee. I’m a man of large appetite, and even with lunch under my belt, I was feelin’ a mite peckish.”
In America, “peckish” developed another meaning, kind of befitting the way it sounds. The OED defines this as “Irritable, peevish; touchy,” and has an 1857 quote from Putnam’s Monthly Magazine: “I have observed that mothers are apt to be oversweet on their daughters-in-law at first, and terribly peckish on them afterwards.”
Both senses fell out of use in the U.S. until the age of NOOBs. That 1988 OED citation is from the American novelist Laurie Colwin’s book Home Cooking: “At four in the afternoon, everyone feels a little peckish, but only the British have institutionalized this feeling. Every year one English magazine or another carries an article about the decline of the tearoom, but teatime still exists and many tea shops serve it.”
That was a bit of an outlier, and notably dealt with an British topic. The word really didn’t start taking off in the U.S. until a decade or so later. I saw O Brother but didn’t notice the word, and the first time I recall encountering it here was in 2015, when one of the producers of the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend said in a radio interview that she’d chosen a California town as the setting in part because the local mall had pretzel shops at both entrances, “just in case you got peckish for a pretzel.” (I posted this quote when I first wrote about “peckish,” and several commenters objected to the peckish for something construction as a vulgar Americanism.)
Since 1995, the word has appeared in the Times 107 times, including in a review of a bar on the Lower East Side: “If peckish, try the matzo-meal fried chicken with pastrami-spiced gravy ($23).” Most recently, it was in the first sentence of a fitness article: “Why are we so peckish after some workouts but uninterested in eating after others?”