The “Pied” in The Pied Piper
The Pied Piper is a character in a German folk tale popularized in English by Robert Browning in his poem “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.”
In Browning’s version, a town corporation hires the Piper to rid their town of a plague of rats. They agree to pay what the Piper asks. When the rats are dead, however, the town leaders renege on the contract because the rats cannot be brought back. In retaliation, the Piper lures away their children, never to be seen again. The moral of the tale is that cheating people can have unexpected and dreadful consequences.
The term “pied piper” has entered the language in the sense of someone who, by means of personal charm, entices people to follow him or her, usually to disappointment or misfortune.
Browning’s Piper wears a long coat “from heel to head” which is “half of yellow and half of red.” The coat is what gives him his name.
The adjective pied means “of two colors.” Originally, the two colors were black and white, the colors of a magpie. Magpie is where the “pie” comes from. The word usually refers to an animal with markings of two colors, especially a bird: pied kingfisher, pied flycatcher, pied finch, etc.
In the Middle Ages, the Carmelites were called “pied friars” because their religious habit consisted of a brown tunic and a white cloak. The Benedictines and Cistercian monks were called “pied monks” because they wore a white tunic and a short black cloak.
A pied horse–piebald— has black and white patches, although some speakers use the word pied or piebald to describe patches of any differing colors. Another type of pied horse is called a skewbald:
When the white is mixed with black it is called ‘pie-bald,’ with bay the name of ‘skew-bald’ is given to it. –Youatt’s ‘The Horse,’ 1866.
The term pied piper is popular with writers on the Web, although what they mean by it is often difficult to discern:
Rufus Harley: the Pied Piper of jazz
Todd is the Pied Piper of cool
Steve Gryb: the Pied Piper of Percussion
Mohamed El Baradei: Globalist Pied Piper of the Egyptian Revolt
Seligman: the Pied Piper of positive psychology
Ryan McGinley, the Pied Piper of the Downtown Art World
Jerry Kapstein: the Pied Piper of Free Agents
Headlines are innately ambiguous, but here’s a reference that definitely departs from the traditional meaning of pied piper as “someone charming who leads his followers to misfortune”:
“He’s a team guy and just beloved by people that know him. He’s very pleasant to be around. He’s like the Pied Piper,” Lamb said.
Perhaps a revival of Browning’s poem is in order. In our age of skullduggery, the topic remains timely. Besides, it’s fun to read aloud. Here are a few lines to get you started:
They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.
You can read it all here: ”The Pied Piper of Hamelin” by Robert Browning.
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