Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're piping down…
Q: Hi AWC, I recently heard someone say there were more things “coming down the pipe”. But I’ve also heard people say “down the pike”. Which is it?
A: Well, are you an incy wincy spider?
Q: I can confirm that I am NOT an incy wincy spider.
A: Then it’s not a pipe.
Q: Wasn’t that a spout anyway?
A: Oh, yes, so it was. So was the little teapot, short and stout.
Q: Anyway, if it’s not “pipe”, why do people say it?
A: Do you know what a pipe is?
A: Do you know what a pike is?
Q: Um, not really.
A: And THERE is your answer. People gravitate to words that they know in a classic “sounds like” situation. Although, in this case, using “pipe” makes a bit of sense too.
Q: How so?
A: If someone says they have a lot of new things in development, they might be referred to as being “in the pipeline”. That idiom – which dates back to 1921 – uses pipes, so many naturally assume that a similar anticipatory idiom does the same.
Q: But those are just pipe dreams, right?
A: That’s right. Very good.
Q: So, then what exactly is a “pike” and why are things coming down it?
A: Pike actually has a few meanings.
Q: Wow, you’re NOT wrong! I’ve just looked up the Macquarie Dictionary and it has a LOT of listings for it.
Q: First, it’s a type of fish.
A: It is, but that’s a whole different kettle of— um, it’s not the meaning we’re after.
Q: Okay, how about “a sharp pointed spike”?
A: Made famous by shows like Game of Thrones putting peoples’ heads “on a pike” – but no, it’s thankfully also not the origin of our idiom.
Q: Okay, well what about this one. A verb meaning “to go quickly” or “abandon”?
A: This colloquial term is most commonly seen when someone might “pike out” of doing something. But no, it’s also unrelated to this topic.
Q: A type of dive into the water, where you almost touch your toes?
A: This type of “pike” is made famous by Olympic divers who flawlessly execute things like reverse triple somersaults with a half pike. It’s not the meaning we want though.
Q: Isn’t the half pike also used in snowboarding in the Winter Olympics?
A: Nope, that’s the halfpipe. Named because, well, it looks like half a pipe. Snowboarders are a simple people.
Q: Oh yes. Makes sense. Okay, I have one more definition coming down the pike – and it’s… oh, it’s just short for the US term “turnpike”. Surely it can’t be that?
A: And yet it is!
Q: Ugh, of course it is. Thanks English…
A: “Turnpike” dates way back to the 1400s as a spiked defensive barrier on a road – made from sharp pointy pikes. By the late 1600s, it had evolved to be less pointy and more of a barrier for paying tolls. In the USA, these “turnpike roads” – or toll roads – became known simply as “turnpikes” by 1748 and were often shortened to “pike” from 1812. One of the more famous ones today is the New Jersey Turnpike.
Q: And the phrase “coming down the pike”?
A: Merriam Webster states that the original phrase, “down the pike” had two meanings. The first, arriving around 1900, meant “in the course of events” and was more historical in nature. For example, “this is the finest singer to have come down the pike in years”. And more recently, it referred to the future, such as “we have a lot of exciting things coming down the pike”.
Q: So it’s really like saying “down the line” or “down the road”?
A: Exactly – with “turnpike” taking the place of the line/road. Back then, the word “pike” wasn’t so rare, but today it is commonly confused with pipe – especially outside America, where people haven’t typically heard of a turnpike road.
Q: So to recap, if something’s in the pipeline, it’ll actually come down the pike, not the pipe.
A: That’s it!
Q: Well, this chat has surely taken its “toll” on me.
A: Time to pike then. Let’s hit the road…
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