The “Pied” in The Pied Piper

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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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12 thoughts on “The “Pied” in The Pied Piper”

  1. Even though the term pied piper is often overused, I think that the writers got their points across here:
    Mohamed El Baradei: Globalist Pied Piper of the Egyptian Revolt.
    Seligman: the Pied Piper of positive psychology.
    Jerry Kapstein: the Pied Piper of Free Agents.

  2. In all the headline quotes, and in the examples John gave above, the idea that the pied piper is one who could compel people to follow his lead (to a way of thinking or to support of an issue, etc) whether they originally wanted to or not, is a valid use of the metaphor, I think.
    I mean, we don’t know that the original piper only had the power to lead his followers to a bad end. Presumably he could have led those kids to a paradise filled with more honest and loving versions of their parents. 🙂

    The quote by Lamb does seem to outright miss the point. The rats didn’t follow the piper because they liked him and he was fun to be around. They were charmed into it by a special ability. That’s the key point in my mind.

  3. DAW,
    Simple Simon met a pieman, going to the fair.

    Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.

  4. Is Browning’s poem the source of the phrase “pay the piper” (as in, it’s time to pay the piper)?

    I didn’t realize “magpie” is where the “pied” comes from – fascinating!

  5. And where can one pick pickled peppers? Peppers pre-pickled for the picking, that is? I’d like to know.

    The traditional had it, ” Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked. If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, how many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick?”

    Now we seem to get, “”If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, how many pecks of pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick?”

    To correctly answer the first mandates that one knows how many peppers are in a peck. Which of course you can’t know because a peck is a unit of dry weight not of count. So it depends on the size and packing of the peppers. Kind of a trick question. The latter is something of trick question, too, really. One. You just said he picked a peck. So at least the second version actually has an answer. You just can’t help but think, though, that the second version is simply corrupt. They just stuck another p-word in there by accident because it kind of sounded like it should be there. Ruffians. But, it is a good example of how everything from word pronunciations to whole nursery rhymes get messed up by people who can’t pay attention! Irregardless, some people could care less. Expecially in Febyuary.

  6. dragonwielder,
    Browning’s poem was published in 1842. The proverb “who pays the piper calls the tune” was around long before that. The meaning was that the person paying has the right to decide what tune is played. “To pay the piper” in the sense of facing the consequences of our actions also predates the Browning poem. The OED has this example from the 17th century: “After all this Dance he has led the Nation, he must at last come to pay the Piper himself.”

  7. Thank you, Maeve, for answering my question and refreshing memories from long ago! Dale

  8. “And where can one pick pickled peppers?”
    Venqax, you have a hard time understanding that in poetry and especially in alliteration, anything goes!
    The phrase was not meant to be taken literally.

    By the way, not being able to understand such things is a symptom of certain neurological diseases. For your own sake, you ought to consult a physician. I am not joking.

  9. A piebald horse is only black and white, Skewbald mixes some brown in. A skewbald may have any mixture of color with the white patches

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