Cluck … cough … cluck.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the expression “the pip” as in “I have the pip.” I have seen it in used in old novels by one of the characters, and my mother used to say it (she would be 100 if she were still alive). I understood it to mean “not sick, just feeling miserable for no known reason,” but maybe it was really was an illness now known by another name? — JS Rooney.

Hey, lookie there, another “pip.” English has three distinct “pip” words, perhaps four if one stretches one’s definition of “word,” and that’s not even counting “Pip,” the protagonist of Charles Dickens’ novel “Great Expectations.”

pip08.pngOne of the oldest sorts of “pip” is the use of the word to mean the small, hard seed of an apple or another fruit (“We divide This apple of life, and cut it through the pips,” E.B. Browning, 1856). This “seed” sense is actually a shortened form of “pippin,” an old word for “apple.”

Another sort of “pip,” meaning the kind of spots found on dice or playing cards, seems as though it should be related to the “seed” kind “pip,” but comes instead from the old English dialect word “peep.” (Personally, I’m convinced that the two are related, but no one listens to me.) In any case, this “pip” is also used to mean the stars or other small insignia found on military uniforms.

There’s also the interjection “pip-pip,” popular at one time in Britain, which was simply a stylized imitation of a bicycle horn. And then there’s “pipsqueak,” an insignificant person, which is probably imitative in origin, i.e., represents the kind of sad little sound such a loser would make under stress. Again, all these “pips” have a common sense of “something very small,” so it’s hard to say that they are not ultimately related.

The “pip” your mother used, however, is definitely an entirely different word. This “pip” is actually a disease of poultry and other birds, a respiratory illness that produces large amounts of phlegm in the poor birdie. This “pip” first appeared in English in the 15th century, adopted from the Middle Dutch “pippe” (mucus), ultimately from the Latin “pituita,” meaning “phlegm.” (The “pituitary” gland in humans was once thought to be the source of phlegm, thus the name, but it is not.)

Almost as soon as this “pip” appeared in English, people began humorously accusing each other of having the chicken disease, and “pip” came into use meaning “an undefined disease or malaise, especially one involving mucus,” the sense in which your mother apparently used it (“Of a person with a short hecking cough it is often said ‘Her’v a got the pip,'” 1879). In the 19th century “to get the pip” also meant “to become depressed,” and “to give someone the pip” meant to severely annoy the person. Both uses are still occasionally heard today (“This camp musical about a monster child star is harmless and amusing enough, assuming you can stomach the little girl. She gave us the pip,” The New Yorker, 1992).

Page 1 of 2 | Next page