Kip & Spike

Pick a peck of soul-crushing boredom.

Dear Word Detective: What do the English words “kip” and “spike” mean? I found them in Orwell’s biography in Wikipedia, but I could not find any proper definitions in any dictionary. — Jana, Czech Republic.

Thanks for an interesting question. Then again, it’s hard to imagine an uninteresting question that involves George Orwell (pen name of Eric Blair, 1903-50), author of 1984, Animal Farm, Homage to Catalonia, and many other books and essays. The Wikipedia page about Orwell actually does a good job of briefly recounting his peripatetic and amazing life.

The two terms you encountered, “kip” and “spike,” are both associated with Orwell in the 1930s, when he set out to document the conditions of London’s poor and homeless. Orwell dressed as a vagrant and frequented the dive bars, flophouses and hangouts of the poor, and his experiences furnished the material for his first published essay, titled “The Spike” (1931). His further experiences “undercover” in London (and elsewhere) eventually resulted in his book “Down and Out in Paris and London,” published in 1933.

Of the two terms, “kip” is the easier to explain. A “kip” in the sense Orwell meant it is a lodging house, usually humble, in which beds are rented by the night or week. “Kip” is also used in extended senses of “a bed in such a place,” “a bed” in general, or even “sleep” in a general sense (“I got to have a rest. I ain’t had no kip,” 1938). “Kip” in this sense first appeared in print in 1879, but it had been used in the sense of “brothel” since 1766. It appears to be related to the Danish word “kippe,” meaning “hut” or “low alehouse” (i.e., a “dive” bar).

“Spike” takes a bit more explaining, but it’s also a more interesting word. In Orwell’s accounts of life among the poor and homeless, a “spike” was a workhouse, a public shelter for the homeless where food and board were supplied (just barely) in exchange for menial work performed by the residents. Workhouses (or “poorhouses”) had been established in England in the 14th century, but were still common in the 1930s. Originally established to care for the poor and indigent, workhouses proliferated in the 18th and 19th century, and depended on the labor of their residents to remain solvent. The labor usually consisted of mind-numbing tasks such as crushing stone or “picking” oakum (“He had heard of a work-house, in this city, into which refractory servants are committed, and put to hard labour; such as pounding hemp, grinding plaister of Paris, and picking old ropes into oakum,” 1804).

“Oakum” is the short, coarse fibers of hemp, jute or flax, which are separated from the longer, smoother fibers that are used to spin cloth. Oakum was used to caulk ships, seal plumbing joints, and even as dressings for wounds (“Who should it be but Mr. Daniel, all muffled up … and his right eye stopped with Okum?” Samuel Pepys, Diary, 1666). One source of oakum was old ropes made of hemp, which were laboriously picked apart by hand to free the fibers of oakum for re-use. The picking of oakum from old rope was most often done by hand with a large metal nail, or spike, and it’s likely that the workhouses got the nickname “the spike” from this instrument of long hours of toil. Picking oakum with a spike all day every day was almost certainly the most painfully memorable aspect of life in a “spike.”

Interestingly, the Latin word for oakum was “stuppa,” and back in Roman times “stuppa” was often used to seal the necks of jars or bottles like a stopper. This practice spawned the Late Latin verb “stuppare,” which, a few centuries later, produced our English verb “to stop” in all its senses, from “stopping” the flow of water from a leak to “stopping” a speeding car.

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