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Sunday, January 4, 2015

12 Days of Wordlady: Pipers

The end is almost nigh for the 12 Days of Wordlady (or, as we have affectionately come to call it at Chateau Wordlady, "the blogathon from hell, whose idea was that anyway?"). Soon we will be reverting to our regular Friday schedule, or the end will be nigh for Wordlady herself.

So, to "pipe". This is a very old word in English. Its ultimate origin seems to be the Latin word pipare 'to peep, chirp', clearly imitative of a bird. But unlike most Latin-origin words in English, this one was borrowed from Latin while the Germanic tribes who later moved to Great Britain were still living on the continent. By the time they had settled down in England, "pipe" was being used to mean "make a birdlike sound by playing a tubular wind instrument".

The sense development for the noun in English was:
tubular wind instrument
tube of various sorts
tube used for smoking

"Pipe" would have been pronounced "peep" in English until the Great Vowel Shift. Birds, however, did not participate in the Great Vowel Shift, and obstinately kept saying "peep" rather than the newfangled pronunciation rhyming with "hype", so we had to invent the word "peep" (i.e. the chirping sound "peep", not the peeking out "peep", which is a different word) at that time.

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For why it was OK to call the Virgin Mary a "bird", click here: 

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.