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shameless pleading

Until the pips squeak

Don’t frack me, bro.

Dear Word Detective: With Europe’s austerity measures constantly in the news, I’ve recently encountered the phrase “to squeeze someone or something until the pips squeak.” Is this a reference to a cider press? I see in the archive that you’ve addressed the origin of “pipsqueak,” but I can’t help but wonder if the two terms are connected (and if so, which came first). — Joe Ramsey.

Well, that certainly sounds unpleasant. Makes me glad I’m not in Europe. I wonder why those folks don’t just come over here and borrow some moolah from Donald Trump, Lloyd Blankfein and the Kardashians. They seem to be rolling in it. By the way, can anybody out there explain where the Kardashians got their money? I know Daddy was one of OJ’s lawyers, but still, their ginormous money mountain seems excessive. Sometimes I think our whole economy is rigged.

I’ve actually written about “pips” on at least two occasions, although, as you say, I’ve never touched on “making the pips squeak.” But that’s because English is, to put it mildly, a “pips rich” environment. The Oxford English Dictionary lists five senses of “pip” as a noun. Some we can safely ignore, such as “pip” meaning a brief electronic tone or “pip” standing for the letter “P” in phonetic alphabets used in radio communications, etc. (e.g., “pip emma” meaning “p.m.”). My most recent foray into “pip-ville,” back on 2008, was an exploration of “pip” as the name of a disease of chickens, which comes from the Middle Dutch “pippe,” meaning “phlegm.” This sense also gave us “pip” applied to humans in the sense of “undefined illness or malaise,” or, more broadly, “annoyance or irritation” (“Bob’s arrogant attitude gave me the pip”). Yet another “pip,” found in the stereotypical upper-class British interjection “pip-pip,” started out as an imitation of a bicycle horn (“‘Well, it’s worth trying,’ said Reggie. ‘I’ll give it a whirl. Toodleoo!’ ‘Good-bye.’ ‘Pip-pip!’ Reggie withdrew.” P.G. Wodehouse, 1920).

That leaves us with the two remaining noun senses of “pip.” One is “pip” meaning the dot or symbol on a playing card, die (as in dice) or domino. This “pip” has several extended meanings, such as a small spot on anything or the stars denoting rank on a military uniform. The other sort of “pip” means the small, hard seed of an apple or other fruit.  Although these two words are considered unrelated, it seems very possible that they both derive in some way from “pippin,” originally meaning “seed of a fruit” and used in early English as a synonym for “apple” (as well as to mean, in the 19th century, “something very good,” in reference to esteemed varieties of apples). The source of “pippin” was probably a Germanic root meaning simply “small.”

To “squeeze (someone) until the pips squeak,” meaning to exert heavy pressure on someone in order to extract money, information or simply obedience, is definitely a reference to the “pips” in a fruit. The sense is that if a fruit is squeezed very strongly the pips would shoot out, perhaps at least figuratively, making a “squeaking” sound as they fly across the room. The term first appeared in print in reference to the heavy reparations demanded from Germany after World War I (“Dealing with the question of indemnities, Sir Eric said: The Germans, if this Government is returned, are going to pay every penny; they are going to be squeezed as a lemon is squeezed — until the pips squeak.” 1918).

Curiously, the epithet “pipsqueak,” meaning a weak and/or insignificant person, seems to have no real connection to “make the pips squeak.” Although it appeared about the same time (1910), “pipsqueak” employs “pip” in the sense of “something very small” and “squeak” in the sense of “small, weak sound” to convey the sense of a young child or powerless adult who can only squeak in protest.

1 comment to Until the pips squeak

  • Lyman

    Hmmm… interesting. I approve of any reference to good ol’ Plum, but your explanation of “squeak” sounds a little squiffy to me.

    If you have ever squeezed a watermelon or lemon or apple seed between your fingers, in anticipation of shooting it at a chum, you will sometimes get a little squeak just before it shoots out and hopefully plugs your pal in the ear.

    Have a great Fall, and may your cows give sweet milk and your sheep avoid the staggers.

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