Coming Down the Pike

By Maeve Maddox

LJ wrote:

Can you tell me which is correct: coming down the pipe or coming down the pike? I have heard it both ways.

The original expression is coming down the pike, but it may be going the way of our friend free rein.

The word pike in this expression is a shortening of turnpike.

Originally “turnpike” meant a toll booth, but came to mean the highway itself.

My Southern grandmother would say things like

That Bessie Dean would take up with the first man that came down the pike.

The expression coming down the pike originated before the days of TV and the internet. In those days most new ideas came to town by way of the highway. Upon opening the morning newspaper, one might say

Let’s see what’s new coming down the pike.

Here’s a quotation from an international website about economics:

There is more bad news coming down the pike, news of such magnitude that no amount of ordinary manipulation is liable to conceal it.–GlobalResearch.ca

In Arkansas pike in the sense of “road” is still fairly common.

In other regions, speakers unfamiliar with the term try to make sense of the expression “coming down the pike” by altering pike to pipe.

For these speakers the metaphor is that of a substance moving through a pipe or a pipeline and not of someone walking along a highway.

The “coming down the pipe” version can only be nurtured by such things as a blog advertising The Pipeline Show. The blog title is “Coming Down the Pipe.”

Piker
Also derived from the turnpike pike, the words pike and piker were nineteenth century West Coast terms of contempt for poor white migrants from the Southern states–rather like the word Okie in the twentieth century.

An English dialect word piker with the meaning of “vagrant, tramp gypsy” existed as early as 1828. Vagrants wander the “pike.”

The U.S. word with the similar meaning is thought to derive from the name of a county in Missouri. Presumably many poor people from Pike County moved to California to find a better life.

As happens with ethnic slurs, the word piker took on more and more negative meanings.

piker: 1. Originally: a cautious or timid gambler who makes only small bets; one who plays for small stakes. Hence: a person who takes no chances; a cowardly or stingy person; a shirker, a ‘small-timer’.

 2. Finance. A small-scale speculator or investor.B. adj. (attrib.). Mean, shirking, cowardly.

When I was growing up I often heard my father and his brothers use the word piker in the sense of “cheapskate” or “tightwad.”

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19 Responses to “Coming Down the Pike”

  • Brad K.

    I grew up in Iowa, and often piker meant “cheapskate” or “tightwad” only if you watched the individual closely – that the piker would cheat and steal if he could. That is, a piker’s morality was related to the risk of getting caught; situational ethics.

  • mbatey

    In British English, we have a derivative of ‘piker’ still in fairly common usage – ‘pikey’, meaning a gypsy. Nowadays it’s applied contemptuously to any person of low social standing; it’s pretty much synonymous with ‘chav’.

  • Connie in Alaska

    I had always though that the term “piker” referred to those early settlers travelling west who gave up and didn’t complete the trip, perhaps never going as far as Pike’s Peak, Colorado, thus being termed a “piker”. I have used that term to describe someone who is an amateur, a quitter or who shows weak effort compared to someone else. For example:
    Man: I bench pressed 50 lbs. today!
    Woman: You’re just a piker! I bench press 100 lbs. everyday!

  • Bradley

    There are two oft quoted and competing origins for “Pikey” in British English – one comes from the turnpike, the other comes more directly from the pike itself.

    Either gypsies and vagrants travel along the turnpike, or poor people mustered into militia and standing armies are armed with some kind of pike: in its simplest form, whatever long stick was at hand, with an agricultural implement fastened to the end.

    Either way it all comes back to something pointy on a stick – the pike in turnpike is, after all, a pikestaff blocking the road that will only be turned out of the path when a toll is paid.

  • Kristen

    In NZ, we use “a piker” as someone who won’t play, come to the event/party, etc.

  • Nuscha

    mbatey: I just clicked on your user-name, because I found the name of the website intriguing, wondering “Workshop on what?”, hoping for “… writing”, of course.
    Such a great trailer! Must be the first one on the internet I watched fully. Ever!
    A very interesting mix. And I loved the little plays on words and tongue in cheek. 🙂

  • Brad K.

    In Iowa and Minnesota we often fished for the Northern Pike, or Walleye Pike, or even the muskie or muskellunge – members of the perch fish family. My Chambers claims the walleye and other pike-type fish are called that because of the pointed – pike like – snout. I never did hear a fisherman angling for walleye or northern as a “piker.”

    @ Connie, Pike’s Peak was named for the explorer, Zebulon Pike, that claimed and got recorded as reaching the top of the mountain over Colorado Springs. Of course, we have no record of the people that didn’t claim or get recorded if they got there before Z. Pike. And no one recorded the two trips I made, in the 1950s with my folks, and again in the 1990s.

  • Lavonne Carpenter

    My 14 year old son says that when you throw the baseball, You throw it down the pipe. He laughs at me because I say down the pike. Which is it? Please don’t let me be wrong, I’m the mama!!lol

  • Maeve

    Lavonne,
    You’ve stumped me. I wouldn’t use either expression for throwing a baseball. 🙂

  • LGW

    An aircraft on approach is “in the pipe” if it is following an acceptable path to landing, which can be pictured as a pipe as there is some room to be off-center and still be acceptable. In this sense I guess you could throw a baseball “down the pipe”. Both uses are technical jargon, however.

  • NFA

    In all my years of flying I’ve never been categorized as “in the pipe” while on approach. The reason I’m contributing to this blog however is because as a pilot I continue to hear “winds down the pipe” in referance to a direct headwind on the runway intended for landing (I’m not familiar with the pipe these other pilots are referring to). Having been born and raised in the Mid-Atlantic region I do however understand what a pike is and believe the original phrase is “down the pike” and as such brief “winds down the pike” when I give my arrival briefings. It has been my experience, as the original article suggests, that those unfamiliar with what a pike is try and incorrectly adopt the phrase as “pipe” (to include uninformed 14yo sons, Lavonne you’ve got my vote). At any rate, unpacking the coloquialism makes for interesting conversation on subsequent flights.

  • Flo

    A “pike” was a term used in the 18th century for major roads in the thirteen colonies, therefore, “coming down (or up) the (turn) pike” was slang for somebody arriving in town. Later it changed to anything coming into focus or view.

    There is a lot of old slang that our Grandparents used to use that came from way back.

    A “shay” was an old slang for a two wheeled oxcart (wagon), it was originally a french term “chaise” meaning a fancy two wheeled buggy that the well to do rode around in.

  • Todd

    “The Pike” was the entertainment center of the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis. Something “coming down the Pike” was something, as in a parade, for example, specifically coming down the Pike. That’s where the phrase originated.

  • Flo

    For all you “pikers”

    http://www.word-detective.com/092906C.html

  • Theresa

    I have always said and heard that the expression is “coming down the pike” for what is new. For example, “she catches everything coming down the pike” for someone who routinely catches every disease, etc. And that calling a strike in baseball is a ball that is thrown “right down the pipe” or over the plate.

  • Genius

    Obviously the baseball term is “down the pipe”. I’m 23 and have played baseball for 14 years. I still laugh at people who think it’s called “down the pike”!

  • Peter Samuel

    Ms Maddox: you wrote: “Originally “turnpike” meant a toll booth, but came to mean the highway itself.”

    Not quite. My understanding is the turnpike was not the toll booth as such but the toll gate which often consisted of a thin pole called a ‘pike’ (for spear). The ‘pike’ barred passage by the toll booth or toll house until the toll was paid to the toll collector. Then the gate or pike was turned (hence turn-pike) so that the rider or carriage could proceed.

    Peter Samuel
    editor TOLLROADSnews.com

  • Patricia Lowes

    I am watching Nancy Grace, and they are discussing a pregnant woman being shot dead. The husband is suspect.The reporter said, of the husbands explanation. “He must of know what was coming down the pike.” The husband has a very lame excuse to say the least.
    I have heard the “coming down the pike” since I was a child and I am 74. I wrote and asked the question. I have no idea why I had the need to know tonight.
    PAL

  • Angie

    I hate this phrase. I know someone who uses this phrase on a weekly (maybe even daily) basis. It is so annoying. It is like she is trying to sound smart or hip. After reading this, it makes me laugh because it is apparent this phrase is anything but hip.

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