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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).


Get offa me.

Dear Word Detective: What’s the origin of “piggy back” as in, “I’ll just piggy back my new process onto your existing process”? It seems to imply that by piggy backing, you can take a shortcut, particularly by using something that has already been created. — Doug Phillips.

Well, that’s strange. I knew for a fact that I had written about “piggyback” (usually treated as one word) years ago, but when I checked my archive page, it wasn’t there. After tearing out about ten percent of my hair, I finally realized that I had actually written about “piggyback” for a children’s word-origins book. (Which is, as yet, unpublished. If anyone’s interested, drop me a line. We’ll do milk and animal crackers.) But something tells me that you’re not looking for an explanation that begins “One of the coolest things you can do when you’re a little kid is to get a grownup to give you a piggyback ride. You get to see what it’s like to be a lot taller, and you also get to find out how fast grownups can run when you shout ‘Giddyup!’ in their ears.”

piggyback08.pngYour mention of “process” in your question leads me to suspect that you are a computer programmer or software engineer, and that “piggybacking” in your field means using code that is already in place rather than beginning from the dreaded square one. But “piggyback” in that sense is a metaphorical extension of the literal meaning of “to carry something, especially another person, on one’s back.”

“Piggyback” has been around for quite a while, since at least the 16th century, and, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “the expression has clearly been analyzed in many varying ways from a very early date” (translation: “many theories, no clear answer”). The earliest forms of the term, including “pick pack,” “pick back” and “pick-a-pack,” make no mention of pigs, so we can assume the bacon came later. The common element in these early forms, “pick,” is an old English dialect word related to “pitch” meaning “to throw or place” (as we “pitch a tent” today). The “pack” was most likely the load carried, whether inert or human, so “pick-a-pack,” for instance, might mean to “pick (put) the load on the bearer’s back.” The use of “back” in some early forms reinforces this interpretation.

By the 18th century, “pickaback” had become the dominant form, but there was a problem. The “back” part was clear, but no one at that point understood where the “picka” came from. So through a process fairly common in language known as “folk etymology,” people replaced the part of the word that made no sense (“picka”) with one that sorta, maybe, kinda did (“piggy”). Voila, “piggyback.” Of course, it didn’t really make sense, since pigs would vigorously resist transport in such fashion, but at least it sounded like normal English.

Figurative uses of “piggyback” are fairly recent, dating back just to the 20th century, and most of those have involved carrying one thing on another (e.g., trucks on flatbed railway cars).

Burn the candle at both ends

Lock, stock and balderdash.

Dear Word Detective: I’m a historical re-enactor and often give public demonstrations. For years I’ve shown my matchlock musket and explained that the match was usually lit at both ends to in case one end went out. I’ve told groups that the the phrase, “burning your candle at both ends” comes from this when it was originally “burning your fuse at both ends.” Please let me know if I’m correct and expound on this if possible. — Lloyd.

candle08.pngLloyd, Lloyd, Lloyd. I have one question. Did someone tell you that story, or did you cook it up yourself? If it was a gift, I would disregard any stock tips that person offers you. If you arrived at that explanation yourself, I commend you for your inventiveness, and implore you to stop. All around the world, innocent tourists are eagerly swarming to historical theme parks, roadside museums, ancient ruins and modern reenactments of famous events, only to stagger away hours later in a daze, their tiny, tender minds stuffed full of misinformation in the form of just such colorful anecdotes. Then they go home and write me to ask if “sleep tight” really comes from the days when colonists snoozed lashed to the rafters, or some such nonsense. I say “no,” and bam, I’ve retroactively tarnished their vacation. Everyone loses. And that’s not even counting the death threats I get from the gang at Colonial Williamsburg.

Just kidding about the threats. But the story of “candle” originally being “fuse” isn’t true, although it did prompt me to research matchlock musket technology. The “match,” of course, is really a bit of “match cord,” a slow-burning fuse (originally hemp cord) that was touched to the powder in the “pan” atop a musket, leading to the main charge exploding and the gun firing. Keeping both ends of the match burning makes sense to me, but, then again, I didn’t know a musket from a muskrat an hour ago.

One of the most basic things wrong with that story is that it doesn’t match the sense of “burning the candle at both ends” as the phrase is commonly used. A matchlock “match” lit at both ends would apparently be a good idea, but “to burn the candle at both ends” means to consume one’s energy with excessive work, little sleep, etc., a lifestyle generally considered a bad idea.

The earliest uses of the phrase in English (it was adapted from a French saying in 1611) also make it clear that a candle, at that time an expensive household necessity, was involved. The original meaning, in fact, was specifically financial — a couple in which both the husband and wife were spendthrifts was said to be “burning the candle at both ends,” wasting precious money in two different directions at once. The more general sense of “to burn oneself out through excess work or play,” though now the most common usage, was a later development.