‘Pie in the Sky’: Definition, Meaning, and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on October 13, 2022

Have you heard the expression ‘pie in the sky’ and are wondering what it means? This article will go over everything you need to know about this idiom.

‘Pie in the sky’ is a phrase that can be used to describe an unrealistic expectation of prosperity or an idea that sounds good but most likely won’t come to pass.

What Does ‘Pie in the Sky’ Mean?

‘Pie in the sky’ is an idiom used to describe a plan, promise, or ideal that sounds very good but is probably unlikely to occur. It can be used as a noun or as an adjective to describe another noun. When it is used as an adjective, the word is hyphenated to read ‘pie-in-the-sky.’

This idiom can be used to refer to something that is falsely optimistic. For example, you could call someone’s ambitions to become President of the United States ‘pie in the sky’ if they had no political experience or popular support.

In short, ‘pie in the sky’ is an idiom that expresses cynicism in the face of an idea that sounds good. Another example would be if your friend said they were going to start a billion-dollar tech company, but they lacked the technical experience, business experience, and work ethic to actually achieve the lofty goal in your point of view. In this instance, you could call their plans ‘pie in the sky.’

Where Does ‘Pie in the Sky’ Come From?

The first time the phrase ‘pie in the sky’ was used was in the song “The Preacher and the Slave.” Written in 1911 by the songwriter and labor activist Joe Hill, it was originally written as a parody of “In the Sweet By-and-By,” a Salvation Army hymn.

This song was a criticism of the Salvation Army because Hill believed they were more concerned with the salvation of people than they were with helping them meet their material needs.

The lyrics from the song that includes the phrase ‘pie in the sky’ are:

You will eat, bye and bye,

In that glorious land above the sky;

Work and pray, live on hay,

You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

As you can see, these lyrics are sarcastically promising great things after death in lieu of having what you need here on earth.

Sentence Examples of ‘Pie in the Sky’

So, how do you use ‘pie in the sky’ in a sentence?

Let’s look at some examples:

  • Suzy believed her plan to buy foreclosed houses and turn a profit on them was genius, but her friends believed it was a pie-in-the-sky scheme.
  • She didn’t think it is pie in the sky to believe that cancer could be cured one day.
  • It might have sounded like a pie-in-the-sky idea, but John was determined to make it happen.
  • It isn’t useful to take a pie-in-the-sky approach when trying to deal with such serious matters.
  • He wanted to believe his business partner, but he’d learned from experience that his pie-in-the-sky ideas never panned out.
  • Sally thought the idea that he would make it home on Friday was pie in the sky.
  • Is this possible, or is it just pie in the sky?

Similar Idioms and Synonyms

There are a number of other idioms that relay a similar message as ‘pie in the sky,’ including:

  • Eggs in moonshine: An old idiom that probably dates to the 16th and 17th centuries, used to describe a ludicrous or unrealistic concept
  • Castle in the air: Refers to an idea, plan, or desire that probably won’t ever be realized; a near impossibility; an idle fantasy
  • The cake is a lie: A newer idiom from the 2007 video game Portal, this bit of internet slang refers to an unattainable or misguided end that is being pursued or a false reward that is promised
  • Pipe dream: Stemming from the fantasies a person experiences when smoking an opium pipe, a pipe dream is a desire, plan, or idea that probably won’t work
  • Jam tomorrow: From the 1871 Lewis Carrol book Through the Looking Glass, this idiom refers to benefits that are promised but that actually never arrive

Some synonyms for ‘pie in the sky’ include:

  • An illusion
  • A fantasy
  • A mirage
  • A false hope
  • Xanadu
  • Empty promise
  • Empty wish
  • Wishful thinking

Some of these idioms and synonyms are probably more recognizable to you than others. For example, ‘pipe dream,’ ‘wishful thinking,’ and ‘empty promise’ are much more commonly used than ‘eggs in moonshine,’ ‘Xanadu,’ or ‘jam tomorrow.’

Final Thoughts on 'Pie in the Sky'

Though this idiom dates back more than one hundred years, it is still commonly used in everyday speech and writing. You might come across it in books, on TV, or in conversation with another person.

Now that you know what 'pie in the sky' means, you can confidently use it to describe ideas or plans you believe are farfetched and unrealistic despite the fact that it would be nice if they came true.

There are countless fascinating idioms in the English language, and learning them can help you expand your vocabulary and be more descriptive in your writing.

Before you go, don't forget to check out the rest of our articles about idioms and common phrases! There you can find articles about fascinating phrases like 'who dares wins' and 'canary in a coal mine.'

We encourage you to share this article on Twitter and Facebook. Just click those two links - you'll see why.

It's important to share the news to spread the truth. Most people won't.

Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

Add new comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

WritingTips.org Newsletter
Receive information on
new articles posted, important topics, and tips.
Join Now
We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.