Pip

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).

13 comments on this post.
  1. Alyssa:

    Thanks! I have my students reading “Peppermints in the Parlor” and Kipper says peppermints give him “the pip.” I was at a loss to explain… it now makes sense!

  2. tom:

    I have heard the expression “Squeeze them till their pips squeak” meaning “hold their feet to the fire”.
    A pip is a plumbers term for the valve that releases steam from a radiator to relieve pressure. They make a “squealing” sound when releasing a small amount of steam under great pressure.

  3. JamesBryson Culp:

    I have heard, oft in Publican places in AngleLand, male persons being greeted or addressed as “Ol’ Pip” As in a phrase such as “Aye, Ol’ Pip, have a Pint with me.” Or to a boy child, “Pip, willst you have a plougman & chips wi’ me ?”

    This and such as this I heard much in pubs, as dogs great and small walked amongst patrons, fourty five years ago (about 1965 when England Scots land and Wales were inhabited principally by the native cultures)

    Be of good heart.

    Dancing on clouds,

    Keep it up !

    JimmyBryson Culp
    an American of Scot Presbyterian & nordic heritage

  4. Togi:

    My mother used “the pip” to refer to her monthly period. Apparently, it was an expression in the South for menstruation, like “a visitor from Charleston” or “time of the month.”

  5. Glenn:

    My mother (born in 1914), if she heard someone hicup particularly loud, high pitched and abruptly, would say, ” you sound like a chicken with the pip.”

  6. kiel:

    i was recently watching the movie ‘WILD WILD WEST’ with will smith and one caracter says to an other ….’YOU SIR ARE A ‘pip’ id fallow you into the deapths of hell” or something along those lines and i was wondering what that use of “pip” was reffering to…if anyone know pls respond thanks

  7. George:

    It’s “You sir, are a pip. I would follow you into the jaws of Cerberus…”

  8. Mike:

    My grandmother was born in 1998 and lived to be 106 years. She would call me a pip as a young boy.

    I was her favorite, which she made no qualms about with the other grandchildren. They knew I was the first and held a special place. They also knew this position as one of being undeserved.

    She was Irish with parents that immigrated to the States. She would use the term when I was having some of my more “rambunctious creative boy” moments. I am now 61 and at family gatherings there always seems to be a story featuring me to the amusement of my children.

    I have prayed that my children do not behave as I have in the past and they have not, praise God. No pips.

  9. Brian Roper:

    I can’t quite remember whether it was in the short stories of Saki, V. S. Pritchett or William Trevor I first came across “the pip”.

    The thing that most gives me the pip is the replacement of “the pip” by “the pips” (utterly abominable).

  10. Ragg Tagg:

    Seems to be one of those words that, when used as slang, can mean various things depending on the circumstance and inflection. I like the affectionate meaning. “You’re a pip, dear.” Meaning something like “you’re a sweetheart.”
    Of course, if you say it with a lot of sarcasm or out of the side of your mouth it could mean “you are a pain in the as*.”

  11. Eileen Donnelly:

    I grew up in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada and we used the word “pip” for skipping school. We would “pip off” or say we were “on the pip”. My granddad was from Bristol, England and my nan from NL but I don’t know where that usage, originated. Anyone else ever hear this?

  12. Pat:

    That’s interesting and funny. My dad used to always tell us we had the epizootic or the pip. He is 91 and was raised in California. His father was British from England.

  13. Jain:

    I have also heard of the pip and epizootic (I heard it epizoodic) as meaning an illness with no name. My grandmother also called such things as the pipseralles of the dibberybibs. Her family was German, my grandfather’s was English.

    Now where did that come from?

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