Out on a limb


out on a limb




It’s back!  Returning after a long hiatus, the popular monthly feature is here to edumacate you on the origins of those clichéd phrases you hear (and probably use) so often.

Now let’s see what’s coming down the pipe this month!



pipe dreamPipe dream – The allusion is to the dreams experienced by smokers of opium pipes. Opiates were widely used by the English literati in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It’s strange that ‘pipe dream‘ has an American origin, considering its European references. The early references to the phrase all originate from in or around Chicago. The earliest found is from The Chicago Daily Tribune, December 1890:

“It [aerial navigation] has been regarded as a pipe-dream for a good many years.”

The first article that associates the phrase with opium smoking is from The Fort Wayne Gazette, September 1895:

“Were it not for this the following incident, which can be verified by the word of several reputable men, would have long ago received the space and attention it merits instead of being consigned to the wastebasket as the ‘pipe dream’ of an opium devotee.”


Pay the piper – To “pay the pipay piperper” figuratively means to face the unpleasant results of your actions for something you have neglected to do especially after you promised to do it.

Basically, it means don’t do anything unless you are willing to suffer the ill consequences of not living up to your part of the bargain.

According to a legend, it was in 1284 that the town of Hamelin in Germany was suffering from a rat infestation. A man dressed in pied (multi-colored) clothing appeared, claiming to be a rat-catcher. He promised the townsmen that he could solve their problem with the rats.

The townsmen in turn promised to pay him for the removal of the rats. The man accepted, and played a musical pipe to lure the rats with a song into the river where they drowned. Despite his success, the people reneged on their promise and refused to pay the rat-catcher for his deed. The man left the town angrily, but he promised to return later to retaliate for their failure to do what they had promised after he had done what he had promised.

The piper returned on a Sunday while the inhabitants were in church. He played his pipe yet again, but this time he attracted the children of Hamelin with his magical pipe. One hundred and thirty boys and girls followed him out of the town, where they were lured into a cave and never seen again. Only three children remained behind. One of the children was lame and could not follow quickly enough, the second was deaf and could not hear the music, and the last was blind and unable to see where they were going. These three informed the villagers of what had happened when they came out of church.

The town had no more rat infestation, but because they did not pay the piper, the town was also missing its children.


pipe downPipe down – On sailing ships, signals were given to the crew by sounding the boatswain’s (bo’sun’s) pipe. One such was ‘piping down the hammocks’ which was the signal to go below decks and retire for the night. When an officer wanted a sailor to be dismissed below he would have him ‘piped down’. This usage is recorded in Royal Navy workbooks from the 18th century; for example, Gillespie’s Advice to Commanders & Officers, 1798:

“At four o’clock, P.M. the hammocks should regularly be piped down.”

There’s no unequivocal link between this naval practice and the ‘be quiet’ meaning. It could well have derived from the fact that, if there was a disturbance onboard ship, officers could quell it by sending the crew below decks, that is, by piping them down. This notion is supported by records of ship’s crew’s being told to ‘pipe down’ rather than signaled to by the use of an actual pipe; for example, this report from The Gettysburg Star And Banner, April 1850:

‘I don’t care what happens to me now!’ wept Peter, going among the crew, with blood-shot eyes, as he put on his shirt. ‘I have been flogged once, and they may do it again, if they will. ‘Let them look out for me now’. ‘Pipe down!’ cried the Captain, and the crew slowly dispersed.


Learned something new?  Had some fun?  Want more?  Check out the “Out on a Limb” category on the right side of the screen for more historical tidbits about what you hear and read.  Don’t forget to visit the sister feature “Miss Communication” for some examples of the crazy way we humans communicate!


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