Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Mailbag Friday: "Pipe Dream"

For today's installment of Mailbag Friday, our question comes from VT subscriber Barry Francolino in Romania. (One of our many far-flung correspondents!) Barry writes, "Just interested to know where the word/phrase/idea pipe dream comes from." The definition given by the Visual Thesaurus, "a fantastic but vain hope (from fantasies induced by the opium pipe)," gives a whiff of its origin.

Opium smoking was something of a fad among educated types in Europe and North America in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and the dream-like effects of the drug soon became well-known. Perhaps most famously, Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed to have written his poem "Kubla Khan" while under the influence of opium, as suggested by the subtitle, "A Vision in a Dream." His fantasy of Xanadu came to him "in a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of Opium," he wrote in a note on the manuscript copy.

But it wasn't until the late 19th century that opium-induced flights of fancy came to be known as pipe dreams. The origin for the phrase appears to have been in the Chinese quarters of American cities like San Francisco and Chicago, where opium dens were a common — and commonly criticized — phenomenon. A description of San Francisco's Chinatown in the May 1880 edition of Potter's American Monthly (by one Josephine Clifford) gives an early version of the expression: "Upon a raised platform ... was the inevitable opium jar, with lamp and pipes and a head-block on either side, where the smokers could stretch themselves at full length and enjoy their pipe-born dreams."

A decade later pipe dream was already being used to describe unrealistic or fantastic visions, not necessarily due to ingesting opiates. Coincidentally enough, the expression appeared in two different Chicago newspapers on the same day, December 11, 1890. On that day, an article in the Chicago Daily Tribune said that aerial navigation "has been regarded as a pipe-dream for a good many years." Meanwhile, the Daily Inter Ocean carried a report from a correspondent at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where U.S. cavalry troops were encroaching on the Lakota Sioux. The standoff would end tragically with the Wounded Knee Massacre on December 29, but at the time of the Inter Ocean dispatch, the reporter was bored enough to compose this bit of doggerel: "All silent lies the village on the bosom of the vale / So I'll squeeze another pipe dream, and grind out another tale."

Just in case there was any question about where pipe dream came from, an article in the July 21, 1895 Chicago Tribune under the heading "Strange Things in Every-Day Life" spelled it out:

There are things taking place every day in Chicago which are are devoid of rational explanation as the mysterious coinings of the novelist's brain. Newspaper men hear of them, but in the rush for cold, hard facts, the "pipe stories," as queer and unexplainable stories are called, are at a discount. 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.

The expression pipe story used in the article also had clear roots in opium abuse, and again Chicago seemed to have played a central role in the popularization of the term. Like pipe dream, it first showed up in the Tribune in 1890, and on Nov. 2, 1895 the Washington Post reported that pipe story was a "favorite Chicago expression." The Post defined it as a "synonym for fake, or canard, or ghost story," and explained that it "came from the west along with the Chinese." Local police knew that the tales told by opium-addicted informants could not be trusted: "their mendacinations are known to the police as 'pipe stories,' or 'talking pipe.' That is the symbol in Chicagoese for anything that is without foundation in fact."

Pipe story never really caught on in the American vernacular, but pipe dream took on a life of its own, long after it lost its associations with shady opium dens. Now it's an innocuous term for any fantastic notion that has little chance of becoming a reality. As we saw with hot dog in our last Mailbag Friday, sometimes a rather unseemly origin can be conveniently forgotten.

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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Sunday July 20th 2008, 12:36 PM
Comment by: Jack B.
very cool article.

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