— Exaggerated, excessively idealized, unrealistic.
— Promise of heaven, as a consolation for suffering on earth.
— Hope for a special reward. “Get rid of your pie-in-the-sky ideas!”
— Something good that is unlikely to happen.
— An empty wish or promise.
This American phrase was coined in 1911 by Joe Hill, a Swedish itinerant laborer who migrated to the USA in 1902. He was one of the leaders of the radical labor organization The Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies. He wrote many radical songs for them.
The phrase appeared in Hill’s The Preacher and the Slave, which parodied the Salvation Army hymn In the Sweet Bye and Bye. The song, which criticized the Army’s theology and philosophy, specifically their concentration on the salvation of souls rather than the feeding of the hungry, was popular when first recorded and remained so for some years.
“Work and pray,
live on hay,
you’ll get pie in the sky
when you die.”
The phrase didn’t become popular until the Second World War, when it was used to refer to any prospect of future happiness which was unlikely ever to be realized. This report was from the California newspaper The Fresno Bee, November 1939:
“The business world is fearful that Roosevelt’s obsession with war problems will mean a continued neglect of questions which still restrict trade and profits. They are highly skeptical of Washington’s promise that they will ‘eat pie in the sky’ solely from war orders, which they decry publicly.”
I just hope it’ll be lemon meringue.